Tales of Brave Ulysses

Stick with me for a few minutes. There’s going to be a pivot like when Arlo says, But that’s not what I came to talk to you about. I came to talk about the Draft.

It all started sixteen Nanowrimos ago, that is, sixteen years ago during Nanowrimo. Nano 2005 was my fourth time and my first (and, so far, only) win. I wrote the whole thing in Ulysses, a brash new writing app that was being touted in the Wrimo user forums. (Apps were “applications” back then. It was a slower, sleepier age. We took the time to enunciate those three extra syllables.) The Ulysses folks held a raffle at the end of the month, giving away user licences to several Nano winners. I was one of them. I used Ulysses for everything until 2010 or so, when Scrivener 2 was released. Scrivener looked good, so I tried it out. It did everything Ulysses could do, but better and smoother. I moved over to Scrivener, and have used it for all my serious writing for the last ten years or so.

At some point in the Teens, I noticed that Ulysses had utterly reinvented itself, revamping its entire interface. I eventually looked into it in late 2016. It was nice. All plain text, with support for Markdown, which was something I was using more and more in other contexts.

I use Scrivener for all post-longhand stages of drafting, and I need to be able to format text beyond Markdown’s capabilities. I’ve written prose-y things — I even lost half a decade to several interminable novels that were more quagmire than vista — but I am primarily a poet and I need the text to look as close as possible to how it will eventually appear in print or on screen. I need WYSIWYG for most of the composition process. For example, my lines don’t always stay achored to the left margin. The page is a field. I need to indent. Not all the time — I’m not Larry Eigner — but, y’know (shrug) it happens. Scrivener can do this, but Ulysses, in its new capacity as a plain text editor, could not. No problem! I decided could use Uly (can I call you Uly?) for first transcriptions from my longhand notebooks and early drafts, then copy to Scrivener to format working drafts for printing, to organize manuscripts, and to archive final versions. This arrangement lasted only a few months before I left Uly in frustration. I just couldn’t get used to how it handled Markdown, and the back-and-forth between it and Scrivener was awkward and problematic, for reasons that had less to do with Uly and more to do with how I need my workflow to function.

It was too bad, because I really liked how I could access external folders in Dropbox and on my hard drive. It could have served as a central hub for my many different writing projects and my document repositories, all with a clean, unified user interface that was easy to navigate. But hey, if something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And just because other people are using it happily and without frustration, doesn’t mean you need to force it. There is no single solution because there is never just one problem. So I resolved Ulysses wasn’t my single solution, and I moved on.

But it nagged me. There was so much about Ulysses that seemed perfect, and despite having used it for only a few months, I later expected other applications (sorry: apps) to behave like Ulysses. I peeked again in 2019, taking advantage of the two-week trial before the subscription would kick in. Very pretty, lots of improvements from 2016, but it still just felt a little off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I had better things to put my finger on, so I moved on, again.

When the most recent version was announced with support for publishing to Micro.blog, I decided to check it out once more. I had a Blot blog and I was a Microblogger now, too, and I thought it would be nice to consolidate my blog-centric writing into one place. But there it was again, the same ardor mixed with uneasiness. Then I discovered that Uly had scrambled all of the Markdown files in my external Blot folder, inserting escape characters in odd places and breaking the formatting of hyperlinks.

Trembling with rage, I asked Ulysses Customer Service — trying my best to keep my voice steady — just what exactly they thought they were playing at. They misunderstood my question and I misunderstood their answer. High with dudgeon, I shot off one last cranky message to Ulysses CS — without any expectation of hearing back from them — and I flounced off to sulk.

Moodily, I turned to my Blot files. I discovered to my chagrin that some of the scrambling actually had a lot to do with a clumsy and unnecessary hack on my part to make post titles and permalinks behave the way I wanted them to. A simple change in syntax and metadata helped my Blot files render exactly how I wanted them to, and with no jiggery-pokery on my part.

I also turned my attention to my overall workflow. I’ve gone into greater detail here, but I’ll sum up by saying that I discovered my digital workflow had devolved into a packrat nightmare of cruft and pocket lint. I had taken out all the pews, so I thought I didn’t need to take out the garbage for a really long time. I’d stuffed Bear and Drafts full of trash, and I no longer had anything approaching a single, stable location for longform writing on the computer.

I knew a lot of this had to do with the vagaries and vicissitudes of these last twelve pandemic months and their impact on my mental and emotional health, and how I had really let things go to shit out of apathy, depression, and despair.

But there was something else. Something that has been going on for much longer. Something that has had a profound and destabilizing impact on my workflow. Something so ubiquitous that I didn’t even notice it until yesterday morning when I began writing this essay.

You see (and hold on: we’re about to pivot), I bought my first iPhone in 2012. For the first four or five years of using one, I almost never needed content on my Mac to be mirrored on my iPhone; it was enough to use something like Simplenote for snippets and notes that I might want to access while away from my Mac. Write on my iPhone? Absurd! I did all my real writing on my Macbook Pro. And if I was wandering in the wilderness and I needed to write, I would bring my laptop with me, or (more likely) I would just use a pencil to write in a goddamn notebook.

But then I bought an iPad Pro in 2017. This was a writing tool that was more portable than my laptop, and just as portable as a notebook and pencil. But now I needed my work to be available in two places. I explored a bunch of text editors that could access Dropbox (e.g. Editorial, 1Writer, Byword) or that used their own cloud databases (e.g. Bear, Vesper). Ulysses seemed to be able to do both. It had a library in iCloud and it could connect to Dropbox. And some apps were iOS only, others Mac-only. With Ulysses, I didn’t have to use one app on the Mac and another on my iOS devices. Its excellent interface was the same on the Mac and the iPad, which was why I kept returning to it, trying to make it work. All these apps that were almost perfect, that almost did exactly what I wanted, but that were always just annoying enough to keep me looking for a different solution, a better solution…

But that’s not what I came to talk about.

I came to talk about syncing.

That is: how syncing — having a portable bucket that’s always with me, to snag things, and throw them in, and have them at my fingertips at all times — led me to adopt some new bad habits and abandon many old good habits.

As I’ve been writing this post all weekend, and cogitating on all these profound and disquieting perplexities, I am more and more convinced that syncing led me to treat my iPhone and iPad as always-ready junk drawers. Syncing made me lazy and distracted: just throw it in the bucket, I’ll deal with it later. Syncing made me evaluate apps (or whatever the kids are calling them these days) based more on their sync abilities than on their overall design, usability, or feature set. I had a sudden and pressing need for apps that synced, and synced well. This was a whole new set of concerns and demands that often superseded and distracted me from what should have been the real concerns: writing and staying organized.

I continue, for example, to have absolutely no problem with Scrivener because I absolutely never use it on my iPad. I tried, it was okay, but it was superfluous, even frivolous. The work I do in Scrivener happens at my desk, in my office, usually with notebooks open next to me and the desktop printer on across the room. I don’t need to access any of my Scrivener projects on the go. Sync is, for that work, utterly irrelevant. Even if I could do exactly the same work on my phone, my ipad, and my computer, I wouldn’t want to. I need to be able to walk away.

Sync is only necessary in an always-on always-available context. But do I really need things to be always on, and everything to be always available?

I remember back in December of 2006, I was at my bench and a co-worker was chatting with me as I was fixing a computer. Everyone suspected that something remarkable, something big, would be unveiled the following month at Macworld and everyone was speculating what it might be. No one really knew anything, but rumors were circling around some sort of successor to the Newton. My cow-orker pointed at my iPod and my cell phone, which were stacked together at my elbow.

“I want something that combines those two things!” he cried.

I asked him why.

He said something about how he wanted to reduce the number of digital devices he had to carry around all the time.

I asked him why would he want his phone with him when he was listening to music? Wouldn’t there always be a chance of being interrupted? Why would anyone want to combine an immersive experience with a distracting one?

I think he said something about rolling to voice mail, but otherwise he had no answer. I still haven’t heard an answer. (There never seems to be an answer unless you follow the money.)

Syncing serves us, sure, but it has come to feel like a necessity when in fact it’s usually more of a convenience. Syncing means we never need to leave our phones behind and just walk away with only a pencil and a notebook. If it’s important, they’ll call back, or leave a message. No, instead, you are never alone, you are always on call, you are always at work: the boss can text you at 2am, you can doomscroll in the check-out lane, you can check Facebook during the concert. Everything blurs into everything else, and a tickle is as prominent and as captivating as an earthquake.

Then I heard back from the customer service rep at Ulysses. Remember Ulysses? This is a song about Ulysses. Misunderstandings were untangled, terms were defined, apologies were issued by both parties. And on Friday I started — again! — another two-week trial of Ulysses. We’ll see where it goes from here, but I suspect that Penelope is just about finished with unravelling overnight what she wove during the day.

So there you have it. It’s been quite a week. I have gutted my workflow; shitcanned all the useless trash clogging my writing apps (and unsubbed and deleted almost all of them); deleted almost all the apps from my iPhone and iPad; dumped tons of scraps into a big junk drawer — and made the junk drawer easy to search but hard to add to. I’m rebuilding my writing environments from scratch. I’ve streamlined my Scrivener projects, and for everything else, such as blogging and notetaking, it’s just Drafts, the nvUltra beta, and… Ulysses.

I thought I wanted something to help me see all my junk when, in fact, I needed to throw away all my junk. You know? I think there’s an “inbox zero” parable hiding in here somewhere. But that’s not part of this song.

PS: As for Markdown links, which is kinda where this whole thing started, here’s the deal:

  • For each external folder (like Dropbox, or local folders on your hard drive), you can set the link format by checking or unchecking “create reference links” when you “edit” the folder by right-clicking on it (it’s the same menu window that appears every time you add a new external folder)
  • For documents within Uly’s iCloud library, things are considerably weirder, and I’m still feeling my way around. But this quirky link thing is no longer a dealbreaker for me.
Robert V @rnv