I Build a Writing Machine

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

My Raspberry Pi writing machine sitting on top of my secretary. The top folds shut holding the wireless keyboard and mouse inside. I still can use the secretary for handwriting, note vintage Sheaffer Triumph nib fountain desk pen, ink bottles, and stack of filled Moleskines on the left.


I am always involved in a quest for writing machines. I have a couple of laptops (one Linux, one Windows) that I use all the time. But they have web browsers, graphic programs and all other sorts of diversions and I wanted something that would work perfectly for writing first drafts – a distraction-free environment that gives me what I need and nothing more.

A little over seven years ago I bought a secretary and have been using it for handwriting ever since. I used to have a laptop concealed within – but that gave out years ago and modern laptops tend to be too big to fit. I was trying to think of the best way to add digital writing to my secretary, always plotting. I’m poor too, so the solution had to be cost-effective.

And then along came the Raspberry Pi – more specifically the Pi 3. For a small price you can buy a functional computer about the size of a pack of cigarettes – now with builtin WIFI and Bluetooth. It won’t play the newest games or display complex websites, but it is more than adequate for, say a word processor.

Exactly what I needed.

So I set to work. First the Raspberry Pi itself in a cheap ready-made case – attached to the back of a cheap, used monitor that I bought at Goodwill for ten bucks. The key is an USB powered HDMI to VGA converter to make the Raspberry Pi work with the old monitor. Then I bought a small plug strip with USB outlets and glued that to the bottom of the monitor stand. That runs the Pi, the converter, and the monitor itself (I bought a very short cord for the monitor) – so I can move it  all as one unit with only one power outlet.

The Raspberry Pi has four USB ports – two are used for USB thumb drives – one for data storage (I don’t trust MicroUSB cards – so I store all my data on the thumb drive and swap it out periodically) and the other to move files off when I’m done writing. Another USB port is used for a wireless keyboard/mouse combo.

And that’s it for the hardware. The native Pi software, Raspbian, is more than adequate for this task. The Pi has an ethernet port, but since I rarely connect to the internet, the WIFI is fast enough. So far, I don’t even use the Bluetooth, but might set up a wireless file transfer eventually.

The Raspberry Pi 3 B+ attached to the back of the monitor. You can see the HDMI adapter cord,the two USB thumb drives and how it is powered by the small white plug strip. Underneath the shelf is the Microsoft transmitter for the wireless keyboard and mouse.

The machine is fast enough to use any one of several Word Processors. I use Emacs Org Mode for todo lists, outlines, and planning – it’s great (will have to write about that sometime).

For first draft writing, however, I’ve settled on FocusWriter. It provides an efficient, full-screen, distraction-free writing environment which I’ve customized into white text on blue (like WordPerfect 5.1 in the old days – the best writing environment I’ve ever used). Best of all, in the status bar it displays time, word count, and percentage of the daily writing goal completed – which is more than cool. It really makes it easy to crank out the daily number of words.

I do also run a thesaurus and can check Wikipedia if I need to, though the idea is to stay off the web. It really works well – a creative space optimized for cranking out first drafts.

Editing? That’s the tough thing… and a topic for another day.


They Ring And You Run

“So that’s the telephone? They ring, and you run.”
― Edgar Degas

Downtown Square, McKinney, Texas

Oblique Strategy:
Always first steps

I think of the technological advances during the time I have lived.

In college, I had to punch cards to produce input into a computer that took up an entire floor of the business school. I would hand my precious stack – chits of holed paper with one corner gone – through a window to some anointed guardian like it was the gate to the Emerald City. I would then stare at an empty vending machine for hours until my stack of printouts flopped down into a numbered wooden bin.

Almost a decade later I was writing database programs to run on a Radio Shack TRS-80. I would write the program on an 8 inch floppy disk, and the data for each site was on another 8 incher. I think each held 180 K bytes. We kept having problems with data until I discovered my assistant was holding the extra disks onto a copy board with magnets. Reports were slowly spit out on an incredibly loud daisy-wheel printer. Still, as crude as this all was it revolutionized the storage and retrieval of information that we had been doing by hand.

The IBM PC was another incredible advance. Of course, I remember when it was kept in a wire cage and you had to get a key from a manager to use it. They thought it was a waste of money – and couldn’t understand why it didn’t get more use. I finally convinced management to get it out of the locked cage and let anybody sit there and type. Soon, a mouse wandered over and the early versions of Windows came out. It was painfully slow – but I remember when I realized I could cut information from one program (a spreadsheet, say) and paste it into another (a word processor). I remember that moment still – it was like a whole new world opened up.

Another moment like that was the first time I saw a laser printer spit out a piece of 8.5 x 11. I think it was the silence that impressed me, even more than the quality of the work.

And on it goes – for most of my adult life, every year brought new wonders – having my own computer at home, laptops, video games, thumb drives, GPS. All amazing. It’s only recently, as the corporate behemoth ropes everything back in, gets its evil tendrils into and around every byte that I feel we have begun to fall backwards. Things are now getting harder and harder, less and less amazing.

When I talk to my kids about this, the quintessence of millennials, they agree without hesitation that it is the Smartphone that is the game changer. For me, it’s probably the internet… but for them it’s the little piece of glass in their hand – that goes everywhere, that does everything. They can’t imagine life without one.

Each little phone is, of course, many, many times more powerful that that immense leviathan that spread across that entire building when I was in school.

High Technology

“High technology has done us one great service: It has retaught us the delight of performing simple and primordial tasks – chopping wood, building a fire, drawing water from a spring”
― Edward Abbey

Electronics Swap Meet, Dallas, Texas

Electronics Swap Meet, Dallas, Texas

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
― Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible

“It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”
― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

New Screen

Last year, at Tulane, some time Lee stepped on his laptop and cracked the screen. He had a separate monitor, so he could still use the thing. Still, it killed me. I would love to have a nice laptop like that (I’ve got a decent one, it was Nick’s Toshiba – a present his Junior year in high school – until the hard drive fell out and he went out and bought an Apple – I retrieved his broken one and installed Ubuntu on it – which kicks it up a notch, IMHO) and I would take better care of it.

Still, accidents do happen. It’s a few hundred dollars in parts and labor to repair damage like that. Luckily, there is ebay, and without any trouble I could find a brand new replacement screen for seventy five bucks or so. I’m not so cheap to muck around on a used pull or something like that – though I did look for one at the First Saturday computer swap meet.

Luckily, there is even a YouTube Video of the procedure.

So, the Fedex man brought the box, I watched the video a few times. I collected my weapons: screwdriver, forceps, a couple little bowls to hold stray screws – on the kitchen table.

Lee's Laptop

Here's the laptop and the replacement screen - all ready to go.

So I took a deep breath and dug in. It was pretty easy. It was very easy until I had it all apart. The guy did a great job with the video, detailing how to get the thing apart and pointing out possible problems and potholes.

All Apart

All taken apart.

The only difficulty is that the video ends with the well worn bromide, “Just do the opposite of what you did taking it apart to get it back together.” Technically, this is true.

But it is a lot harder to get those tiny little screws to jump back into their holes that it was to yank them out in the first place. Especially with big fat clumsy fingers like me.

But I kept at it and soon enough, it was all back together. Works like a charm.

Now, lets see if we can get him to keep the damn thing in a bag when he’s not using it.

Yeah right.