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Writers’ Comfort Zones

I was sitting around with a bunch of writers a while back, in a hotel bar in Wellington, New Zealand, during the (it must be said) splendid festival they have there. One of the writers, novelist Kamila Shamsie (Burnt Shadows, Kartography), asked us all how we format our pages as we type. Double spaced? What font? What size? Do you count your progress in thousands of words or in pages? It was a strangely intimate question, a bit like asking whether you sleep in the nude and if not, what do your jammies look like?It was a strangely intimate question, a bit like asking whether you sleep in the nude and if not, what do your jammies look like?

As it turns out, there was little variation in how we all formatted, though we shook our heads at a few details (really, sixteen point? How can you stand it?), and I will admit there was a little note-taking over fonts we could download. The point being that writers (and students and nurses and geeks at IBM and folks who work for the government) have computing comfort zones within which they find it easiest to think and write. The first thing you do when you sit down at a new computer or install a newer version of Word is to personalize it. It's a kind of acceptable OCD behaviour. As hard as Word and iTunes try to make us all line up and do the same things on the same pages, to train us to ask for help from a web page not a person, to make the world look clean and branded, just as if the Nazis had won the war, we work just as hard to be... if not unique, then at least different. This prisoner rolls up his cuffs, this one leaves the collar open.

I had a boss once whose background colour for her desktop was the most horrifyingly violent pink — it fairly vibrated at me as we had our meetings, and it made me wonder when, not if, this otherwise well-mannered woman would climb a clock tower with a rifle and start shooting.

Of course, I'm not suggesting formatting your page is some kind of universal experience.Of course, I'm not suggesting formatting your page is some kind of universal experience. Not everyone in the world has a computer. But if you are reading this post, you obviously got here somehow; you likely own a computer, are literate, speak English, and give a crap about books. So bear with me as I get a little specific.

Not all of us with access to a computer actually use that computer, either. I read somewhere that Woody Allen writes exclusively on those crappy pads of yellow, lined paper... and he uses a pencil. That's how he started writing, and that's how he still does it. Cormac McCarthy used an old Olivetti for 50 years until it died (sold for a pretty penny at auction, too) and then he went out and got an exact replica. Joyce Carol Oates used a typewriter for ages — and given her backlist, I don't think anyone could argue it slowed her down. I saw a guy at a poetry reading the other day taking notes in shorthand — I was watching over his shoulder. I even heard of a visual artist turned children's novelist who uses a brush and paint and one of those enormous white pads you see in public school on easels. She stands back and writes in longhand. It helps her think.

Everyone uses whatever tool seems most helpful. And they avoid whatever seems awkward. It's all about utility, really. I mean, a computer with its luminous screen is a prosthesis anyway. An artificial hand. It's not much different from a typewriter, except you don't have to retype every last thing until you want to scream.

Lots of writers have recently become besotted by Sharpie pens. We love our laptops for their portability. Some of us keep notebooks — and we could bore ourselves into the grave if we took a poll on what constitutes an acceptable notebook. Since the late 1990s, Moleskines have been a white-hot hit with writers thanks to their supposed literary background. Of course, these notebooks are tough, the paper's nicely opaque, and they come in all kinds of groovy formats... but the success of this product is uncanny. They affect writers the way Hannah Montana affects little girls — the alchemy of success is too weird to suss out. (Open disclosure: I have a Moleskine ... okay, I have several. I love them. Bruce Chatwin wrote In Patagonia, and I've never read it. End disclosure.)

A while back, my husband Kevin Connolly was involved in a charity event that asked poets to write three poems "live onstage." As horrifying as that sounds (both to the writer and the audience), it was in fact fun and sort of beautiful.As horrifying as that sounds (both to the writer and the audience), it was in fact fun and sort of beautiful. The room was a cabaret-style martini bar with couches and cafe tables. It was darkened except for candles set out here and there, and computer screens were projected onto all four walls: four walls, four poets. At the centre of the room was a clutch of bar tables with laptops set up on them, at which the writers sat on stools and composed on laptops — they each had 10 minutes.

Between the writers was a rising umbilicus of cords and cables that went up into the darkness and connected the laptops to the illuminated screens. As each author typed, his or her words appeared, enormous and clear on the wall. You sat in the dark, your head swivelling to watch each writer type, backspace, re-think, reformat, change a line break, check spelling. There was no music. The audience was quiet and respectful, but they weren't dumb, and you could hear the frisson of approval or displeasure as a line ticked out in 1500 point type. There was the occasional whispered opinion or smattering of applause.

Sure, the poets were in acute sweaty misery the whole time. But for the audience, it was like being at the ballet, sitting in the dark and watching pretty little objects flit across the stage. The geek in me wonders how it might feel to sit alone in my office at night and write straight onto an illuminated wall. A bit Howard Hughes-ish, I guess. But fun too.

Ah well. For now, I'll have to work within the walls of the benign penal colony that calls itself Word version 12.0.4518.1014.

÷ ÷ ÷

A seventh-generation Canadian, Gil Adamson is the author of two books of poetry (Primitive and Ashland), as well as Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, a collection of linked short stories. Her first novel, The Outlander, was a Powell's Indiespensable selection and a Washington Post Top Ten Book for 2009. It was nominated for the Commonwealth Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Award, and it won the Dashiell Hammett Award for Crime Writing and the First Novel Award. Adamson lives with fellow writer Kevin Connolly in Toronto.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Help Me, Jacques Cousteau Used Trade Paper $5.50
  2. The Outlander (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. In Patagonia (Penguin Classics)
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  4. Burnt Shadows New Mass Market $19.93

Gil Adamson is the author of Help Me, Jacques Cousteau

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