EOW 8: Performance

This is an echo of the earlier "End of writing" series (here is #6); I'm writing it on a whim.

So I got a new desk when I moved in 2004. The new desk isn't actually new, but is a used desk I bought for $300; it's a full-sized "management" desk from the 1950s, three foot by six foot, made of walnut. It was probably as close to mass produced as any furniture of the time, but it's quite sturdy and well made: All the drawers work well, etc. So it feels like a nice luxury item to me. Before that, for most of the writing in this space, I had a metal desk with drawers on only one side, and a formica top, but it was starting to break down. I had Sony CRTs for most of the writing here, I think, but I have a square (not TV aspect ratio) LCD now that seems pretty generic. I still have a tower computer case that sits beside the desk, just as one did at the old place. I've had a few different cases recently — partly from changing motherboard form factors, and then the worst was when the case itself shorted out: No one could figure out what was going on, and it ended up frying a series of components. But the components in the computer are kind of a rag tag assortment of stuff. I'm not sure what the oldest electronics are at this point; maybe ten years old? All of the newer stuff is overkill for what I need.

I have a classic IBM PC keyboard. It's heavy duty, and unfortunately noisy. But I really dislike most keyboards. I bought a whole stack of those IBM keyboards when they were selling off inventory. They last for a long time with heavy use, but not forever. I think I'm on the 4th one. I actually liked my DEC vt320 keyboard better, but that terminal set itself on fire randomly one day (I think in 1994), and I never located any stock of the DEC keyboards. Besides the monitor, which is on a stand for ergonomics, and the keyboard, my desk has a lot of random things on it, usually including some things I should throw away. (My computer files are much neater than my physical space.) There are also books, academic of various sorts, but also some old travel books, catalogs, lots of business cards, bills to be paid, my wallet & phone & keys & such, backup equipment, rain equipment, handouts from recent meetings, pen & scratch paper pad, usually a drink with stone coaster....

I've been running FreeBSD at home since 1995, so all of the writing in this space was done on that operating system. Currently I have version 8 running, which was an upgrade I managed to make when a hard disk controller died recently. (I used both 2 and 4 for longer time periods.) And then I run X windows, with fvwm2 as the window manager. When I started, the default window manager (twm) wouldn't do virtual desktops, and I wanted to use virtual desktops to keep my web browser(s) separate from my work space. So my "work" desktop is only some xterms, white text on black, in the standard san-serif font, 9x15. There are no window controls or anything like that (I control anything needing control from the command line): Just the rectangular windows, nothing but white on black, with minimal frames. I do like having more than one text window on the screen (and, for instance, have my email in the same interface on the same desktop, not via the web). I use an 80x42 xterm as my main window for writing, and write with the 'vi' editor (nvi, definitely not vim). I escape from that to do spellchecks in the shell (tcsh), with an interface I wrote myself for the unix dictionary, somewhere back in the foggy past. And I regularly do backups with an scp command to another server. Many of the commands I use are things I wrote, or alias front ends, and much of my stock of configuration files actually predates 1995; I probably don't have any sense of what the real defaults are anymore.

As far as the broader setting, my desk & computer & stereo are in the living room of my apartment, which was built cheaply around 1970, and has had few things updated since then. It's very plain and maybe a little grim, since we have no decorations. But it's painted off-white and has a very big window, so it's not dark. The room is highly cluttered with my wife's things scattered all over the carpet. She works sitting on the floor, whereas I have a relatively new ergonomic desk chair. I do have a back patio and spend a lot of time walking around or staring out the window when I'm writing. I sit down and write things in bursts.

I might ruminate on a particular item for a couple of weeks (or more) before I actually start it. Or sometimes it's much faster than that. This item occurred to me yesterday (the 15th), but I didn't have time yesterday. I generally try to write as much as I can think of at the start. Well, I give some thought to where I'm starting, so I usually have that concrete, and it doesn't usually change in editing. So there's a beginning, and then various ideas that could or do follow from there. I write out a bunch of them, usually more than half of an article at first, although sometimes it goes slower than that. Then I'll come back to it later, usually another day, and read what I wrote and reflect on that, so the second part of an article is generally me reflecting on the first part, although that might not be evident by the time it's edited. Once I've done a draft, I do something I call "scraping" — or at least that's how I think of it, but I don't think I've said it out loud. There are generally more ideas at any given point in an article than I can really juggle in text, even with parentheses and dashes and that kind of technique. So then it becomes a question of whether I want to try to follow some of these other paths in the writing later on in an article — scrape them down the prose to the end or near the end and elaborate there — or get rid of them as something for another time, or maybe just let some loose ends dangle, and I'll do the latter sometimes. Depending on the scraping, which goes hand in hand with trying to articulate everything clearly, I often have some more things to write or think about in a new paragraph, or in one that was skeletal. So I'll go through sort of a mini-process on that, and then the piece is basically complete. I try to wait for another day to do further editing, although sometimes I convince myself that it's fine as is (although I think the writing almost always works out better if I take that third day, which of course might not be consecutive, depending on what else I'm doing).

When I'm doing the editing, and the scraping too, instead of reading what I wrote in the editor, I'll go look at it in a web browser (usually Opera, but I might look at it in Firefox too if it's something a little different — I keep those two running all the time in their own virtual desktops, so I can kind of "protect" myself as I need to, with the Firefox showing graphics and ads and all that, and the Opera setup being quite minimal). The format is different and it seems different, enough that I can at least notice I wrote the same word twice in a row, for instance — not really a substitute for having a real editor, which I usually have to do myself, but better at least. So I'll switch back and forth between browser, on a different virtual desktop, and editor, sometimes I guess probably a hundred or more back & forths, because I might agonize over a particular word or handful of words, or word order, for what seems like forever. Usually I come to a solution I like, but sometimes I just get irritated and decide it's good enough, or that there's no perfect articulation, and let it go. Occasionally this causes me to completely redo a paragraph, but I don't do that very often. I always try to get my thoughts out, even if they aren't expressed very well, and then I can worry about the expression & articulation in editing. I find that more productive than worrying too much when I'm trying to write a rough draft. This is basically the same process, with the text editor and web browser, if I'm writing for a formal purpose other than my website. When I'm done, I'll convert the document from html to whatever format is needed, but I always write this way, unless it's some one-off posted comment somewhere.

When a web page is done, then I'll copy it over to my web server, and get it inserted where it needs to go, which might involve updating a few different files, or might not. Then I do a web backup, and delete all my working notes or whatever from my desktop. I don't keep work product around for finished pieces, or any kind of versioning. When I delete any leftovers like that, which is the last step, it generally feels good, although I usually agonize for a few days about what I wrote, but I stop myself making any real changes (unlike, say, a typo I might notice) once I put it online, if it's one of these serial documents. This is not a complicated discussion at all, so the third day editing this piece didn't even take half an hour, even with pauses, although I did change some words and phrases.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb