Writer’s Diary #24: A 21st Century Typewriter

Ezra Klein has a great interview with Tom Hanks. It starts with Klein and Hanks talking typewriters. I loved it.

One detail, the custom-made typewriter desk Hanks had built. Another, the fact that he writes a quick letter to his wife, running out the door at 6:30 in the morning. I wondered, could I do that?

Part of it is the instantaneous nature. Type and then its text.

One challenge, I don’t have a good old fashioned typewriter. I have a bad old fashioned typewriter. But, frankly, I find it too hard to type on. I mean, it’s hard as in it’s physically difficult for my fingers. In addition, the ribbon has dried up again, and some letters need to be repaired. I don’t have a working typewriter, and even when it works, three of the letters don’t work very well.

Still, a year and a half ago, I splurged and bought a rather expensive, but nice, FreeWrite Smart Typewriter. I enjoy it. At times, when writing material for the books, it’s rather useful to get ideas down.

The problem for the purpose of writing a letter to my wife, it produces text files synced to the cloud.

What Hanks got me thinking about was how could I use that to print directly.

So, yesterday, I turned to ChatGPT. I’m familiar enough with the UNIX terminal to read code and understand how things work, but I’ve never been good at writing code. I can’t do much by myself.

However, with ChatGPT, I’ve was able to put together a small script, in just a couple of hours of iteration. ChatGPT and I wrote a bash script to convert a text file in a synced Dropbox folder from the FreeWrite. It takes the markdown text, then converts it to a PDF using LaTex with a nice simple typewriter font.

It works well, if I have a computer running. It was really gratifying to have a tangible letter, that took only a few seconds to write, and no computer.

It was a letter to my wife.

If anyone wants to be inspired, here it is:

It’s worth noting that I had to install MacTeX to make it work, so this is my first real use of LaTeX.

Looking to the future, I’m planning to try hooking the script to ChatGPT via the API, to automatically spell-check and grammar-check a letter before it’s printed.

That would be cool. Next time.…

Writer’s Diary #22: Crafting “Stone by Stone”

One of the hardest parts of writing, or maybe everything is hard, is starting something new. The possibilities are endless, and therein lies the difficulty. If a chapter can be anything, then what is it? No. I mean, what is it exactly? What’s the order? What comes first? Where does the introduction go? What is the next bit? What comes at the end? The problem is that you can do a lot, but a chapter is not finished until it is.

Consider the first chapter, which I will start again tomorrow. I wrote the first draft a year ago and planned it on a large seminar table. The structure is there, but not finished.

My first instinct is to read it all, try to figure out the structure, write it out, make a plan, and then implement the plan and see where it goes from there. But experience tells me it’s going to be slow, with a lot of procrastination, repetition, and trying to work out the point.

I’m not going to try to plan it or figure it out, instead I’m going to work with what’s there and let the structure emerge.

Perhaps a metaphor will help.

Think of a chapter as a stone wall.

A stonemason knows their material, they know the shape of the wall they’re trying to build; they know its dimensions and all that. But to actually build the wall, they have to build it. That’s the work. The work (and the skill) is in choosing from the stones that are available, and putting them all together in a way that works. The trick is in the craft of how the wall emerges. If the wall is built well, it is because the stones fit. If they fit, it’s because of the iterative, skilled work of making them fit.

I think that’s how walls are built, mind you. I only know a little, from watching a basement wall being repaired.

But this diary is about writing. How does the metaphor fit? To work on this chapter, I know a few things. It’s subject (fieldwork) and topic (field notes), and the argument is that research is improvisational. With that in mind, I need to spend a few weeks editing what I’ve done for this section to see how the structure emerges.

It is through working and reworking and making things fit that the structure will emerge.

This way of working is not fast or efficient per se. But it’s the work. The work is the revision, and through the revision the order is found.…

Writer’s Diary #21 – Yesterday, a good day. Why?

Yesterday, I had what felt like an unusually good day of writing. So, I want to reflect on what worked. Of course, with an eye on how to repeat it.

Some observations:

  • Writing was the priority. I didn’t schedule writing, nor plan it, nor interrupt it by looking at email, news, or anything else. Instead, I worked on writing projects from about 9:00 to 2:30.
  • Breaks were unscheduled, but regular. I took liberal breaks when I felt like it—went out for coffee, ate lunch, went for a walk. Work chunks were about 50 minutes.
  • Projects were various. I worked on:
    • this writer’s diary;
    • this writer’s diary as a podcast that I might post someday;
    • the fragments for an hour over coffee at the village bakery;
    • the makeshift book for a couple of hours, in three sections, to finish the introduction;
    • exporting the chapter to an EPUB and read it on my iPhone in a hammock;
    • exporting the first 15,000 words of the book and read it on my iPhone lying down.

Then I took a nap. All of this took me until about 2:30 in the afternoon.

Then, and only then, did I do email for an hour and a half to blast through communicating, then review projects in OmniFocus, and then stop at about 5 to talk with my sister-in-law.

Somehow, all day, I managed to feel like I was in a flow state for most of the day.

Time disappeared.

By the end, I was walking on sunshine.

What did I do right to write?

  • I worked on various writing projects.
  • None were longer than about 800 words.
  • I finished them in about an hour.
  • I never tried to push through.
  • There were few interruptions, and when there were, it was because I wanted to go somewhere else or do something else.

Maybe it was luck or serendipity, but I think there was something good about the way I wrote yesterday.

If it was one thing, I’d say it was that I didn’t do the same thing for too long, and each project took about 45 minutes, and then I did something else.…

Writer’s Diary #20 – The Hard Part can be Everything but the Writing

In the last few weeks, I’ve made progress on the writing that I’m excited about. The introductory chapter is almost finished, I think. Soon I can put it aside for a long time. I’ve been editing a fragment a day and have made some good progress. I look forward to doing another one in a few moments. Editing something, and then finishing works really well. A hit of being done. Yesterday, I even made some progress on a couple of websites. Another victory.

However, last night I had things like work, service, and personal commitments that kept me awake. Lots of little things. Some will take some time, and some won’t take much. But, it’s a firehouse.

What to do?

I’m going to set aside some time for each area to cut tasks and organize what I need to get done. I’ll schedule the tasks for the day, after I’ve written this morning.

Good old time-block planning, and task prioritization.

However, this morning, all after I’m done writing.…

Writer’s Diary #19 – Morning Choice

This morning’s a choice, the choice of what to work on.

There are a lot of urgent things to do—visas to apply for, emails to answer, websites to set up, and lots of fires to put out.

But that’s what we’ve been doing for the last three days, diving into all of that. Back from vacation, it all seemed prudent. But it’s the summer. I don’t want to spend my summer of my sabbatical not writing.

Nobody will judge my success by my ability to send one last reply, one last email, least of all my sick self. So maybe there’s a conscious choice—it doesn’t take long to write a post. I want to do them regularly, then I can turn to fragments and makeshift.

So it’s a village walk, sitting down, typing this up, turning it into a podcast, and then doing fragments in the book—after the lunch meetings and a visa.…

Writer’s Diary #18: Elizabeth Gilbert on Elusive Genius

Yesterday I watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert about elusive genius. I came to the talk via a Paul Krugman article asking if Taylor Swift is underpaid. (Short answer: she is). To build his argument, Krugman notes Swift is the real deal, as evidenced by this Tiny Desk concert. It’s good. Listen.

A few minutes in, Swift observes:

Writing songs is strange because it never happens the same way. But sometimes, it happens in a way that feels like this weird, like a haunting that you can’t really explain. Like you don’t know where these ideas came from, and you feel like you didn’t work at all to write it. And that’s the best kind of song. There are most days you show up and the idea doesn’t, and that’s where craft comes in. You have to know the craft of it, and you have to try to scrounge your brain for something to write. It’s not always going to be inspired, and that’s okay. There is a really good Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk about that. It’s one of my favorite things to cry while watching.

I may have gotten my transcription wrong. Anyway, I dropped everything, and listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. It’s good. Watch. I took notes. I may have gotten them wrong, as well.

Gilbert begins by reflecting on the success of Eat, Pray, Love. The problem? What comes next? How do you top that? Or maybe you can’t, and that’s why we become tortured artists.

Norman Miller once said, she says, “Every one of my books has killed me a little bit more.” This idea, the idea of artistic creativity, leading to untimely death and depression.

“That’s the kind of thought that could drive you to drink a glass of gin at 9 in the morning.”

She rejects the idea of the tortured artist. “I want to keep doing the work I love. The question is, how?”

How do you keep doing the work without killing yourself? One way, Gilbert’s TED Talk explores is to create a protective psychological construct between yourself and your writing. She’s looked for models of how to do this, and turned to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks and Romans, she explains, didn’t see creativity as coming from humans. Rather, they saw it coming from divine companion spirit, a daemon, for the Greeks, and a disembodied spirit, a genius, for the Romans. Rather than seeing genius as an embodiment of a person, the Greeks saw it as something outside: a magical, divine entity. Ancient artists were protected from too much narcissism when they made great works. Everyone knew there was a disembodied genius helping them, a daemon in the background doing the real hard work. If the work bombed, it was the genius’s fault, not the artists. Useless daemon.

This was the case until about the Renaissance, Gilbert explains. In the Renaissance, with rational humanism, creativity became seen as coming from the self, from the individual. From then on, the artist was a genius, rather than the artist had a genius. For the artist, this lead to the idea that you are the source of the creativity of the unknowable mystery, rather than just being helped along a genius in the studio walls. That’s a lot of pressure. Did this pressure led to tortured artists for 500 years?

The creative process is not rational. Sometimes it’s something that happens to you. There is an American poet, [Ruth Stone] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Stone), Gilbert explains, who told a story of growing up in Virginia, working in the fields, and then feeling and hearing a poem coming from a distance. It would come crashing down on her in the fields, shaking the earth, and Stone knew she had to run like hell to the house, get a paper and pencil, and write the poem. Sometimes she would walk slowly and miss it, and the poem would pass her by.
Gilbert describes her own process as different. Her approach is more mule like.

Mine is too.

We sweat and we work and we do the work. But sometimes we come up against that elusive genius.

How do you relate to Genius outside yourself?

Gilbert thinks of Tom Waits, that most famous struggling artist facing his demons. But as Waits got older, he calmed down, and he was driving, and a song came to him. Instead of getting anxious, he stopped that whole mental process of getting anxious and said, “Excuse me, can’t you see I’m driving? Do I look like I can write? Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

He saw, for the first time, that the creativity was external. This shift in perspective, Gilbert said, changed the way she thought about her work.

Writing Eat Pray Love, in the pits of despair, thinking this project was a disaster. Ready to throw it away, she remembered Waits, and she tried it.

She stood at the empty corner of her room, and said: “Look, we both know I am putting everything I have into this. If you want it to get better, you have to show up and do your part. My job is to keep writing.”

Did it work? Did it make her feel better? What if genius and creativity were outside of the self? What if the truly divine, the presence of God, the transcendent, were not the product of the individual, rational, human genius, but something other than oneself, something beyond our own control, something like the Greek daemon or the Roman genius. Not something you are, but something you have, sometimes. Mostly not.

This morning, on a walk, I tried it.

It was a terrible morning.

A morning not of writing, but of laundry, child care, and meetings, when I had a conversation with what I have come to think of as a knobbly, gnome-like creature assigned to my case who is an often unhelpful little creative spirit daemon who is never really there to help.

His name: Knobbly Toes.

“It’s not a good day, is it Knobbly Toes?” I say.

Knobbly Toes does not answer, of course.

It’s raining and I’m walking. I have a sore shoulder. I think I looked at the screen too much yesterday.”

“None of this is writing, is it?”

I imagine my gnomish genius Knobbly Toes walking in the grass where a few nights ago there were a thousand fireflies.


“So you know what I’m going to do? Genius,” I say to nobody. “I’m going to go home; I’m going to make a decaf espresso; I’m going to go upstairs; I’m going to write this Writing Diary as well as I can in an hour and a half, and then I’m going to have my meetings this afternoon and then I’m going to make toast and go for a walk.”


I do what I say.

I’m not genius, and I’m usually not tortured, but maybe talking to the little bugger will make things better.

It did.…

Writer’s Diary #17: On Naps

This morning I revised two posts for this Writer’s Diary, rearranged the notes in the book of fragments, rewrote the first two fragments, and then tried to work on the makeshift book, but I couldn’t concentrate.

Looking at the introduction, and felt lost, not knowing where to begin. So I sent a chapter to my tablet and read it in bed. As I read, I saw areas that needed work. But I didn’t take notes. I was just reading. Soon, I fell asleep, then I awoke, read the news, slept some more, and thought about the chapter.

Sleeping is writing.

Later, I woke up, made a sandwich, made a cup of coffee, and sat down to write. For an hour and a half, I revised and revised and revised, making small and large changes, tweaking and tightening all the while. Is it done? No. Is it better? Maybe. But that’s not the point. I lost track of time and almost hypnotized myself while working, and in the end, today was a great day of writing.

In part, because I feel asleep.

After all, writing can be fun. There is joy in the little, little decision that in the end creates a piece of writing. There is joy in a nap to think about it all.…

Writer’s Diary #16 – Everything is a cut up

The last few days I have been experimenting with a digital cut-up method. I’m inspired by Taussig’s book on oil palm in Colombia, which is inspired by William S. Burroughs’ cut-up method. Until yesterday, I had not looked into what that method is.

I think of it as a way to introduce a little bit of randomness into your writing. Take two pages of text. Cut them into quarters. Then mix the quarters from one half of the paper with the other half. This seems like an exercise in creating randomness based on material. But Burroughs then adds that he uses all the tricks of revision, composition, and all the rest for the cut-up method. That changes it for me. It’s a writer’s techniques. It’s a way to get material differently, to change perspective, to see connections, to make new connections, and, ultimately, to get raw material to work with.

And, what’s wrong with that?

Artists have long used montage, scissors, paper, glue, juxtaposition of words to make their work etc. Filmmakers work with juxtaposition and editing. Hip-hop makes music by mixing different material together. Jaune Quick-To-See Smith mixes text with image brilliantly in the exhibition at the Whitney museum.

On the one hand, what is a word processor but a machine to facilitate the editing process? But why not do it more consciously? Why not print, cut, and paste? Why not treat everything as a cut-up?

Perhaps the AI experiment of the last few days was a twenty-first century experiment in a cut-up method. But, maybe retyping and reworking texts is a good way to go, too.

I think cut-up will work for the fragments book—the makeshift book is different.…

Writer’s Diary #15: Programming Challenge: Ordering a book of fragments?

An update on the beach idea. It works, I think.

What was it? What problem does it solve?

I have a draft of an incomplete manuscript in Tinderbox: a book of ethnographic shorts. The idea? Get a sense of a place and time along the vein of Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects. It’s got some gems, but the whole draft has been stalled.

The problem? How to order the fragments. 255 fragments, 85,000 words. I do not know how to organize them all. The problem, trying to think about the whole, which is too much.

Some fragments I’ve spent weeks polishing. Others are very rough. But, every time I’ve tried to get into it, the whole seems further away.

I’ve tried various solutions: randomizing notes, linking them and following the links, reading and reorganizing them, etc. But, it’s still too much. The question of order has impeded the actual work that is required. I could probably edit a short to make it good in about 30 minutes. Do that a hundred times over a hundred days, and I have a book. But the second I try to do the whole thing, it falls apart.

A few days ago, while walking on the beach after reading Word Virus, an anthology of William S. Burroughs’ work, I had an idea for a twenty-first century cut-up method using ChatGPT?

At the time, I didn’t quite understand the cut up method, in its nuts and bolts. But, suffice, it’s a way to bring in the random to the writing. More on that tomorrow.

My question on the beach.

Could ChatGPT order the fragments into a book?

I tested the technique with ten fragments, by hand. The results were intriguing enough to make me think it could work.

Round 1: Doing it by hand

What did I do?

First, I asked ChatGPT to create a TITLE, TAGS, and SUMMARY for ten fragments, and return it as a spreadsheet.

Then I asked it to order them.

You are my writing assistant. Help me organize the text fragments. I am using the cut-up method of William S. Burroughs. So I will give you a CSV spreadsheet with a TITLE, TAGS, and SUMMARY. Please give me back a better order. This is for an ethnography. It’s a book of fragments. All I want is the order you suggest. And then a paragraph explaining the order. No need to give a summary or anything. Just the order, then a short paragraph explaining why.

After some tinkering, ChatGPT spit out a plausible order. I tried it out and liked the result.

Round 2: How to do it programmatically

The challenge, how to do this with 258 fragments? The answer, mostly programmatically. But the devil is in the details.

So, first in Tinderbox, I connected Tinderbox to ChatGPT via a Python command line script I’d written in the Spring, with the aid of ChatGPT. After a morning of work, I am able to ask Tinderbox to use ChatGPT to generate a $SubTitle, $Summary, $Tags, and $WritingStyle attribute for each note, automatically.

It took a while for all the agents to run.

But, after playing catch with the kids for a bit, I came back, and each fragment had these updated attributes. (There are some bugs I need to fix. But it’s a personal project, so I’ll just fix them by hand.

What I did next was export a subset of these to a CSV file, using the $ID to keep track of each fragment. I did twenty or so.

I then asked ChatGPT to work its magic.

It returned an order of IDs and an explanation. It seemed plausible. The order was intriguing, and frankly, better than I had. It’s good enough for me to want to keep working on it.

The next challenge was how to import the new order back into Tinderbox.

Round 3: How to reorder notes in Tinderbox

What’s the situation? I have a Tinderbox document with a draft container comprising all the fragments. I have a list generated by ChatGPT of a new order, comprising the $ID.

The question? How to get the latter back into the former so that the fragments were reorganized.

Since everything is a hammer, e.g. use the tools you know, my first thought was to use agents. I could create an agent that took as its own name a search query, and I could use that to find each note, and then update the $Order for each note from the text of the agent. But it felt clunky. Was there a better way?

Dicitonaries. A dictionary can hold a series of paired values:

$MyDictionary=dictionary(“cat:animal; dog:animal; rock: mineral”); 

I’ve never used them. But, why not?
It worked. First, I used ChatGPT’s output to create a list in the form of $ID:$Outline.
1:1688302519; 2:1688301878; 3:1688301879; 4:1688301880; 5:1688301899; 6:1688301893; 7:1688302517; 8:1688301881; 9:1688301887; 10:1688301886; 11: 1688301888; 12:1688301890; 13:1688301891; 14:1688301892; 15:1688301894; 16:1688301895; 17:1688301896; 18:1688301897; 19:1688301898; 20:1688301900; 21: 1688301901; 22:1688301902; 23:1688301903; 24:1688301904; 25:1688301905; 26:1688301906; 27:1688301907; 28:1688301908; 29:1688301909; 30:1688301910; 31: 1688301911; 32:1688301912; 33:1688301913; 34:1688301914; 35:1688301883; 36:1688301884; 37:1688301885; 38:1688301882; 39:1688301889; 40:1688301900;

Then I use the following function to reorder the notes:

function fChatGPTReorderNotes(){ var:string vIDString
var:string vIDString;
var:integer vOutline;
var:string vPath;

$MyDictionary.keys.each(x){ vOutline = x
vOutline = x;
vIDString = $MyDictionary[x];
vPath = $Path(vIDString);
$MyString=$MyString+vOutline+":"+vIDString + “ [“ + vPath + “]; “;


That is, the function updates the $ChatGPTOutline for each note, using the imported dictionary held in the $Text field of a note.

I then simply run an agent that searches for ChatGPTOutline0, and is sorted by the ChatGPTOutline. Bingo, I’ve got the book of fragments in the right order.

I now have the fragments, reordered according to ChatGPT’s recommendation. That’s good. The challenge now is how to reorganize all 258 notes.

Round 4: 258 Notes

Here, it’s tricky. ChatGPT has limited memory and can’t iterate on 258 items at once. It seems to be able to do about 20 to 40 at a time. I see three ways to approach this.

  1. Try to get access to ChatGPT’s gpt-4-32k-0613 model which has the ability to work with 32,768 tokens. I’ve signed up for the waiting list. But, I suspect I’m small potatoes.
  2. Use ChatGPT to create a list of 250 notes, but in which each row is much shorter, with ten tokens per line at most.
  3. Programmatically iterate through the all the fragments, comparing each one to the next, and asking what order they should go in. This would be a bit like Tinderbox’s dance feature. The order would evolve over time. I could probably safely do five at once and then run it via agents. I’m not sure, but this is probably the right answer.

In any case, since #1 is beyond my control and #3 is a harder programming challenge, and I’m running out of steam, I’m going to give #2 a try. Cut down the data to something very short. I suspect this means it will be not as a strong a result. But, at this point, the goal is less perfection, and more does this work. I can then come back and try to do the third option another time.

Suffice to say, if you can get the list short enough, it works. Is the list useful, I’m not sure. But, I’m going to try it out, and then get to writing,…

Writer’s Diary #14: Wait, Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Sorry for the riff on a remembered song lyric, but I’ve been thinking all day about waiting, slowing down, and not rushing as part of writing.

Let me take a step back. Yesterday, on the beach, I had an idea—a good one; I think. The cut-up method, a la William S. Burroughs, but modified for the 21st century.

(Or maybe it’s a terrible idea.) I don’t know yet.

In either case, it involves some programming magic in Tinderbox. But, I’m not a programmer, I’m a writer, so it’s going to take some time to make this idea work. A bit of fiddling, trial and error, and time.

What I would do in this situation is start working on this project and drop everything else. I would work so hard, and then about 2/3 of the way through, I would burn out, stop, and never finish. I would get grumpy, and not be nice to be around.

This morning, however, I only had about 30 minutes before I had to pack up for a beautiful day at the beach.

So, I finished the first step, and got far enough to know it would work, and then I realized that the way to move forward would be to work on it a little at a time, rather than all at once. Instead of my quotidian unfinished big blitz, the way forward would be to slow down, and work, and then stop in the middle while the going was good.

Tomorrow I’ll figure out what the steps would be to finish the idea, and then I’ll work on it again the next day. Either I’ll figure out it’s a stupid idea, or it’s an idea worth working on.

Although I’m only a novice runner, I think running is similar. It’s pretty clear you can’t train at full sprint all the time. You’ll burn out. Writing is the same way. Sometimes writing is a marathon, especially at the end. But other times it’s just a slow recovery run.

The trick, sometimes, is to hold off and slow down.…