In Praise of the AlphaSmart

Let me sing the praises for my trusty AlphaSmart word processor. This fall marks my 20th year anniversary of discovering this odd writing contraption that basically operates as a quasi-digital portable typewriter when I began teaching at Neskowin Valley School on the Oregon Coast.

I no longer recall the first time I saw an Alphasmart (a creme-colored model, their initial product). I do recall being startled by how younger students used them to practice keyboarding by taking them everywhere around campus, even down to Neskowin Creek to write about the creek! I saw kids writing on the merry-go-around and atop the jungle gym. Later, they would download what they had written onto a computer via a cable or print directly from the processor. It ran on two double A batteries and the batteries lasted forever. It booted up in one second. It was durable. It was light. It was astonishingly portable. It had eight separate files and always saved the work. It could store about 80,000 total words!

So I borrowed one and started experimenting with it, because I wanted to get the writing going in my life. I’d written hundreds of thousands of words in my paper journals, but this kind of writing didn’t translate to anything publishable.

The AlphaSmart changed all that. It became my Great Writing Facilitator. I began carrying one with me everywhere and blasted away when the inspiration hit. It also enabled me to write outside (or in a dive tavern) with ease and writing from a deck, driftlog, patio or tavern seemed to bring forth a torrent of words. I’ve even written in my trucks with one. I stash an extra one in the trunk of my car.

My first AlphaSmart never conked out. But I upgraded in 2003 to the blue 3000 model when, quite ironically, I was working as a watershed council coordinator with an office in Neskowin Valley School and espied the new model. I “borrowed” it. Actually I “borrowed” three.

Those three machines worked for almost ten years. Then the last one died and I went online in 2013 and bought a lot of 10 from E-Bay for $50. These AlphaSmarts came from Orange County Community College and were apparently used by elementary students for some after school program because their writing was still stored on the machines! One kid wrote a priceless line about missing swing sets when he has to attend junior high. Another left behind a sad riff about missing her dead dog.

The company that produced AlphaSmarts stopped making them about a decade ago. They had a couple of newer models before folding that included some bells and whistles, but I never upgraded.

I consider the AlphaSmart as the secret weapon to my productivity. I’ve never understood why more writers don’t use them, particularly with all the distractions posed by ubiquitous Wi-Fi. There is a small cult of users and you can read more praise of the AlphaSmart online. Most of us tell a similar story of intense affection for this machine. There’s only one thing to do with it and that’s to blast out first drafts without any consideration of polishing during the blasting. So many writers slow themselves down during the writing process by rereading and revising during the initial writing. The AlphaSmart’s tiny screen (only four lines of text!) and awkward editing tools make rereading and revising nearly impossible. You just start typing and then stop when you run of out of gas. I’ve written all the drafts of my books and thousands of columns, reviews, essays, features and posts like this. I get a rapid, almost stream-of-conscious beginning on the AlphaSmart and then finishing is easy, at least for me.

What has always delighted me about using the AlphaSmart in public is how many people come up to me and ask what the hell it is. The cooler and hipper the cafe or bar, the more curiosity I get. Even the OTAs ask me questions every now and then. I am always happy to stop typing and explain the simple wonders of this machine. Some people think it looks like a deaf reading device and think I’m deaf. One dude just had to Instagram it and check out #alphasmart for the images. I almost got a date once because of using one.

Over the years, I’ve given a few away to aspiring writers who complained about the distractions of public writing on tablets, laptops and phones. Perhaps this contraption will work for them like it has for me.

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