by Gar Anthony Haywood

When I saw this photo of an Amstrad PCW in Zoë’s recent post about her return to her writing roots . . .

. . . a huge smile spread across my face, because it immediately made me nostalgic for the days in which I was writing on my own dinosaur of a word processing machine.  That dinosaur was a Zenith Z-161 portable computer, and it looked like this:

I use the word “portable” because that’s how it was described in all the brochures, but this thing was about as portable as an anvil in a suitcase.  Lugging it up a flight of stairs was more exerting than any pulmonary stress test your doctor could possibly give you.

But I loved it.

Not for its looks (though I did find it rather handsome), but for its functionality, which was damn near as limited as that of a toaster.  With its 9-inch, monochrome screen and pathetic 256K of memory, there was one thing, and one thing only, I could do on my Z-161: write.  Type on the keyboard, fill the screen with words, and save those words on a big, black floppy disk.  Wanna play games?  Forget about it.  Surf the web?  There was no web back then.  Play music?  Get serious.

It was the perfect machine for an aspiring author, because it made what aspiring authors do best — avoid the actual work of becoming a published writer — as boring an undertaking as possible.  If you turned the Z-161 on and didn’t write, all it would do in return was stare back at you, little yellow cursor soundlessly blinking against a solid black CRT screen.

I wrote most of my first two novels on my Z-161 at home, in the evenings and on the weekends.  I was living with the (now ex-) wife, our two daughters and my step-son in a small two bedroom apartment in Encino at the time, and one corner of the kids’ bedroom was the best I could do for a private workspace.

After a while, as you might imagine, family distractions grew to the extent that I begged my manager — I was working full-time as a computer technician in those days — to let me write in our El Segundo office a few nights every week.  He agreed, and so I began to write, at least part of the time, alone in an empty office building with just the book in my head and an IBM desktop PC that was every bit as singular of purpose as my Z-161.

I can’t say the writing always came easy on those two machines — but I can say it always got done.

I won’t go into all the sources of distraction that now come with personal computers — games, email, online social networks, movies and music, instant messaging, etc. — because anyone reading this blog already knows what they are and how difficult they make it for writers today to get anything done.  But they bear mentioning here only to make the point that I don’t think it’s a coincidence my rate of output has never been better than it was when I was writing on machines that offered me no entertaining excuses whatsoever not to write.

My wife Tessa speaks Spanish fluently, and when I say “fluently,” I mean she regularly draws double-takes from native Spanish speakers when she uses the language at length.  They can’t believe their eyes or ears.  But Tessa didn’t learn Spanish from a book, in a classroom, or by listening to a series of lessons on CD.  She initially learned it by using it, almost exclusively, for three weeks in El Salvador and one in Guatemala, in the early ’90s.  In other words, she learned to speak and understand Spanish the way some people teach themselves to swim: by jumping into the deep end of the pool, where you either fight to stay afloat or drown.

This is called the immersion method of learning.

I believe there’s an immersion method of writing, as well, and that’s the method I was inadvertantly using (because I had no other choice, frankly) when I was doing all my writing on a Zenith Z-161 and an IBM desktop.  But it wasn’t just the archaic computers I was using that made my immersion possible; the environments I was writing in were key, as well: a tiny little bedroom with a single window and no TV or radio, and a closed computer company office as silent and vacant as a tomb.  In both cases, the only thing I ever had to keep me company was the book I was writing, and my only alternative to working on that book was twiddling my thumbs and whistling in the dark.

I chose to work on the books.

I can’t write on that old Zenith “portable” anymore.  Though it’s still in my possession, it’s too slow and cumbersome for my purposes.  And I no longer have access to that office down in El Segundo, nor that tiny, one-windowed bedroom out in Encino.  What I can do, however, is simulate the state of immersion those machines and locations forced me to write in, once upon a time, by turning my desk away from the window in the home office I write in today, and pretend the laptop I write on at present has no internet connection and no installed software other than Microsoft Word.  The idea is to get back to that time and place in which only two things existed for me in the whole world: my latest WIP and a device to write it on.  If I can get there, I may not have much fun — but I bet you I’ll have a completed manuscript in a lot less time than it’s been taking me lately to crank one out.

Quickly, Sherman!  To the Wayback Machine!

Questions for the Class: Writers, does the immersion method work for you?  Or do you need sources of distraction swirling all around you to do your best work?

18 thoughts on “IMMERSION

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Really great post, Gar! I have incredible nostalgia for the Kaypro I learned to be a screenwriter on. (Portable my ass is right…) What I loved about it was the black screen and green lit letters; it felt as if I was being sucked into a dream. Very hypnotic.

    I'm actually good about not playing on Facebook, which seems to be the biggest distraction culprit these days. Arguably I don't post on it enough for the job of writer; I'm trying to be better about it. Don't like games, don't surf much. I need a window, but I think the much more unforgiving deadlines of being a screenwriter forced me to just get down to it and be sure I was cranking out the pages. By now that's the only way I know.

  2. Alaina

    I need some sort of 'distraction', but it serves to focus me: music. I'm used to being surrounded by noise, to the point where silence actively makes me nervous and disturbs my concentration. Whenever I'm focusing on something, I put a song on repeat, loud enough that I can't make out individual words, but soft enough that I can still hear the phone or know someone actually is talking to me.

    Immersion doesn't always work for me, though. I've been trying to do an hour a day, these past two weeks, where I have two choices: continue compiling my list of agents (it's gone from about 37 to 60-something) or look at/apply for jobs. Apparently, the third choice is to stare at the ceiling. That's the problem with an imagination: the ceiling actually is more entertaining.

    Have you ever heard of the Alphasmart Neo? I got one, ostensibly for college, but I still use it for writing. It's a few inches taller/longer than a hardcover book, lighter than one, has a keyboard, and a screen that might be two inches high. It features tools for teachers, ways to transfer your work to a computer or straight to the printer, and eight files. One button to turn it on (mine is set to require two buttons, since it kept being turned on in my backpack) and the last file you were on is open; auto-save every 5 minutes; 8 files that open in one touch and about two seconds. Mine is almost five years old, has been thrown about unprotected in a bookbag with large textbooks for years, thrown down stairs (in said bag) five times, and stepped on at least twice. It's missing one key (the spot still works!) and the right-side enter key doesn't work too well.

    If you want to try the immersion route again, I'd say try getting one of those.

  3. Larry Gasper

    I'm with Alaina on the Alphasmart NEO. It's lightweight, you don't have to worry about plugging it in, and it has everything you need for when you're doing first draft. I like to take mine to a coffee shop so the books and television at home don't distract me. I always manage to write more with the Neo than I do with my laptop, which I save now for when I'm revising.

  4. Gar Haywood

    Alex: Before I bought my Z-161 (it took me FOREVER to save the money), I longed for a Kaypro. A buddy who was more of a storyboard artist than writer had one, and whenever I was at his crib, I would eyeball that thing like a starving man sizing up a cheeseburger. That green screen, yes!

    And God bless you for having the internal fortitude to resist the temptations of Facebook. Never mind the idiocy of trying to "cure" gay people, what we need to be working on is a twelve-step program for folks addicted to social networking sites.

    Alaina: I've tried music and find it intrudes, but maybe that's because the music I play I really LOVE (rather than merely enjoy) and I play it too loud to render it subliminal. Your method of toning it down to a dull murmur sounds like something I should look into. Thanks for the tip.

    Thanks also for the tip on the Alphasmart NEO. Strange as it for a techie like me to admit, I don't think I'd heard of it before now. I'll check it out.

    Larry: Did you get the book?

  5. David Corbett

    I actually have Freedom, a software program that turns the internet off, but I'm not sure it doesn't gum up my backup program (Time Machine), so I've stopped using it. I just try to stay more focused on seeing when I'm letting myself get distracted. I notice that when something's either too easy to too hard I want to check email or the online news. I have to catch myself in those moment and stay "in the chair," by which I mean focused on the task at hand. I'm getting better. I think.

  6. James Harris


    Nothing like old tech to bring back fond memories of haunting computer stores back in the early 80's, lusting after Apple IIs and their Franklin clones and "portables" (Osbornes, I'm guessing). But I didn't do any writing on a computer until the first Mac came out, thanks to a good friend who lived across the hall in my college dorm. Way better than an electric typewriter.

    Now I use two things to deal with distractions: OmmWriter software on my Mac and the AlphaSmart Neo.

    Looking forward to seeing you Tuesday evening at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.


  7. Reine

    Gar, I love this trip to computer past. So sorry to have missed commenting on Zoë's. It's helpful to read about others' process for getting it down on paper.

    I am a get-up-early-as-I-can person but not because I am an early riser. I am not. I just need quiet and little distraction for writing fiction. When I first started the attempt at novelling, I thought I could do it the way I did my academic writing– reviews of the literature, interviews, research write-ups… all that. No. Did not work at all. It seems that, for me, writing for journals, departments, conferences was facilitated by being around all kinds of people and action and bouncing-ideas-off-of-others opportunities. Writing fiction, though, requires me to go into my own mind more to allow the stuff to come out. I often don't know where it comes from or why the story is going the way it is. It's unnerving at times, but I'm relaxing into it and enjoying the occasional surprise.

    Zoë, I look forward to reading the book that results from your return to your writing roots. How interesting that it has increased your word output by 2-3 times! If I could have commented the day I read your blog, I would have said what gets me back on track fastest is strict scheduling. For me creativity can only come about aided by unquestionable discipline. This was a hard lesson for me to pick up on. But that one thing has almost doubled my own word output. More important, however, is the fact that it is making a book possible for me.


  8. Shizuka

    I'm with Reine on the scheduling thing. I write "write" on my to do lists and try to be specific about what I want to accomplish that week. Some (okay, most) of the time, I'm overambitious and it doesn't all get done, but my creative brain seems to work better when I give it direction.

    I use Freedom and Concentrate, which seems to allow you to do some wi-fi things like print out and back up, but my the immersion thing I'm really liking right now is the Pomodoro technique. Concentrate for 25 minutes really hard, relax for 5. I can talk myself into trying odd POV or scenes or pretty much anything if I just have to do it for 25 minutes. If I'm feeling less antsy, I set the kitchen timer for an hour and a half and see what happens.

  9. Gar Haywood

    Reine: "Writing fiction, though, requires me to go into my own mind more to allow the stuff to come out."

    That says it perfectly. Immersion is all about finding that physical and technical space that allows you to HEAR what your creative mind wants to tell you Trying to do that in spurts, in between checking your email or posting on FB or even just eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table over in the coffee shop, is just too counterproductive. The only voice you should want to hear when you're writing is your own. Everything else is just crosstalk.

  10. Allison Davis

    I had an old Osborne II "portable" that I loved to write on. I actually wrote poetry in the old days on a typewriter because I liked how it looks. I still have an old one around but never any time for that writing.

    I found that if i played the same music over and over, even though I loved it, I didn't hear it after a while and it programmed my brain to write so I didn't really hear it. But as soon as it started playing, my brain turned to the writing. That helps cut down the distractions and keeps me focused. Also, when I have so little time to write, it gets me into my "writing head" faster.

    I also find that writing by longhand first helps me "immerse" as it were. I have no idea what it would be like to not have distractions…I'm taking six weeks off in August so I guess I'll find out. Looking for a beach hovel on a deserted island….

  11. PD Martin

    Yes, the good old days … no Internet! And the bad old days too. So much research gets done on the Internet.

    I had a Mac Classic 2. Before the days of Windows.

    I definitely believe in the immersion method, which is why I like my 10k days – one a month!

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Gar!


  12. Gar Haywood

    Allison: But doesn't that approach ruin a good song for you forever? I would think playing something you love over and over and over again, until you no longer really hear it, would turn it into something you can no longer tolerate.

  13. Charlie Stella

    Up at 3:30 a.m., big pot of coffee, look at emails (if any) and get to it (writing–my stuff) for about 2 hours. Breaks come in the form of other writing (either starting my weekly blog) or haunting a conservative site. Back and forth work (school stuff) until 7:30 when I have to feed and inject my pup with his insulin. I leave for work at 8:00 or so and do a lot of reading in the parking lot at work (or while walking around the parking lot, then again at lunch). Reading is a priority, especially at the gym.

    I started on a WANG back in the day … word processing was/remains the perfect job for a writer (even at work–I can do some editing now but no so much). Back in the day, I worked exclusively 3rd shifts and had a ton of extra time to write (back then plays). I probably drafted 4 novels (2 published) on the various jobs I worked. Certainly the last 10 years (first 2 novels and #'s 5 & 7)..

    Even when I moved to bookmaking, I had downtime between shifts to hand write dialogue.

    The school stuff seems to buck more of my time now but it's still writing. I guess it's immersion … I can't handle questions aimed my way when writing on the weekends (my poor wife). Saturdays are big production days (not so much editing). I work a 4 day week now so Monday is another big day but mostly editing. T-F work, back to 3:30 a.m. and a very quiet time. I used to work a lot on Sundays but I don't anymore … only when pressed for a deadline.

    Of course this explains much of why I now weigh as much as a Buick (all that sitting and typing) …

  14. Charlie Stella

    Gar, I'm making up for a much lazier first 40 years. That plus it's the only way I can get anything done (sticking to schedules like this). But the job really helps (word processing) … printers, paper, etc. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be home and doing it from there, but school, work, etc., no time anymore. This is my first writing break this morning … eyes are tired from watching the hockey game (thought the kings would wrap it up last night but they looked like they took a break) … Tonight I'll pass out early, brother …

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