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.

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