Columns > Published on December 2nd, 2016

Ridiculously Extravagant Gifts For Writers And Their Cheap Alternatives

'Tis the season! To buy some stuff for the writer in your life!

I'll be the first to admit, writers can be tough to shop for. Especially if you don't want to indulge some bad habits (booze), overindulge medium-bad habits (coffee), or do that copout thing where you give something like a certificate for 30 minutes of interruption-free time.

But what if the problem, when shopping for writerly gifts, is that we're not thinking big enough? What if we stopped thinking with our dumb brains and our wretched hearts and started thinking with our wallets?

Maybe it's time to look at some expensive stuff, THEN let reality set in, cry a little, and look at the cheaper alternatives.


This is the Freewrite, which is really nothing more than an electronic typewriter that wirelessly sends your work to Google Drive, Evernote, or wherever. The idea being that you can write without distraction.

Call me a hipster asshole. I think this thing is kind of cool. I like the clickety-clak of a mechanical keyboard, I like the idea of writing that isn't hampered by my own inability to stop myself from looking up bizarre permutations of Bee Movie on YouTubeThe Freewrite (formerly Hemingwrite) gets a lot of hate, but it occurs to me that this is, in essence, a Kindle for writers as opposed to readers. Long battery life, simple function, quick startup/shutdown. All the things we like about Kindle, but put into a device for creation as opposed to consumption. 

Everything about this makes sense. Except for the price. The most distracting thing about this device is that I'd be in constant fear that someone around me would know that I paid $500 for the damn thing.

The Alternative

There's a pretty simple and much cheaper alternative to the Freewrite.

This is the Alphasmart Neo. Which is basically the same thing as the Freewrite except it has a USB cable instead of a wireless connection.

It's distraction-free writing, stores somewhere between 80 and 200 pages of work, and gets about 700 hours of writing time out of 3 AA batteries. Oh, and it's about $30, which is a steal when compared to the Freewrite (and damn it's just occurred to me how backwards the "Free" part of "Freewrite" is). 

My advice: head over to eBay, Amazon, wherever, get one of these things for a fraction of the cost, and if your writer REALLY loves it, then you can justify the Freewrite later on. Or you can consider the fact that the Alphasmart Neo cost $249 in 2004 when it was released, and perhaps the Freewrite will be affordable eventually. In a decade.

[amazon B002ABXVHG inline]

Standing Desk

This is the Varidesk.

Chances are you've heard about standing desks, and that you've heard about studies that say people who sit at a desk all day are more likely to die young. 

By the way, science, has it ever occurred to you that this isn't a coincidence, that those of us who sit at a desk all day may be WILLING ourselves to check out early?

Standing desks are the new-old thing. And while there's certainly some merit to the idea, the price tag is, again, preposterous. $375? If I could afford that, I could just afford to work a little less, stand a little more, and buy some human growth hormone.

Plus, who wants to have this thing in their house? It looks like something made by NordicTrack.

[amazon B00JI6NCCK inline]

The Alternative

What's the solution?

1. Buy a tall desk or table that suits your writer's standing height (or raise the legs of your desk with these).

2. Buy a tall chair or adjustable stool.


For the price of some plastic and a tall chair, your writer can stand when they want and sit when they want. And lucky you, their life will be extended and you can enjoy their curmudgeon ass for a couple extra years.

[amazon B014QR6KKG inline]

Writing Cabin


Yes. Yes we have. We've ALL heard the thing about the room and whether it should belong to a bunch of people or just one person.

Let's ignore the metaphorical implications of Woolf's essay for the moment. Wouldn't it be nice to offer your writer their own writing cabin, an office of their own where they can write without distraction or care as the snowflakes fall softly on blah blah blah...

Of course. That'd be great. For a couple of tens of thousands of dollars in land and building costs, you could have it.

But that's not realistic for most of us, right? 

The Alternative

Former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser wrote a lot of his early works in a large cardboard box he found in the alley near his home. He'd get inside, type away, and then tape his poems to the walls. 

I looked for large-ish cardboard boxes online. They're a tough find, believe it or not. But here's what isn't:

Now, hear me out. I know this thing is not attractive. But it does provide some needed privacy. It does cut your writer off from the distractions of the inside/outside world. It does add that small barrier, unzipping the door and stepping out. It does cost less than $50. It does allow for a writer in a studio apartment to have a room of their own.

[amazon B01GE4WEJU inline]

Writing Retreat

Yes, a room to write, a bunch of people to write with. Usually nestled in an idyllic setting. What better gift could you give your writer friend?

For a thousand bucks? Probably a lot. 

A retreat might be life-changing and great, but most of us just can't afford it. 

The Alternative

What about helping your writer friend create a submission for a residency? 

For example, this one is cost-free. You just have to apply, hope for the best, and if you get in you have to get yourself there and buy your own food.

A lot of residencies are free or low-cost, and while it's not quite the same as a full-blown retreat, it could be a great learning/writing experience. 

This is definitely a good way to go if you don't have a lot of cash this year. Pull all the submission info together, fill out the application as much as possible. Print a couple things you think your writer would like to submit. Address an envelope and add postage, but don't seal it. Make sure your writer is cool with it and likes the things being submitted. Do this for 3-5 different residencies and you've got yourself a really great gift on the cheap. Because not only do you have a chance at something pretty cool, you're demonstrating faith in your writer friend.

Stallone Montegrappa Chaos Fountain Pen

Beauty. It's like if you took a t-shirt created by an MMA fighter, turned it 3-dimensional, and then smooshed it down into a pen. It's like you're writing with the music of Drowning Pool. If their music was somehow turned into a writing implement, this would be it.

Let me share with you the description of this pen, just in case its greatness does not come through in the picture:

•Montegrappa Chaos is the pen designed by Hollywood icon Sylvester Stallone. 
•Made of black pearlized celluloid pen and a masterful artwork crafted in 18K gold.
•The cap and body overlay is finished and antiqued by hand and depicts snakes and lizards, swords and skulls. A juxtaposition of life and death.
•All is highlighted by fire-colored translucent hard enamel ribbons.
•The pen bears a fist and a skull and a sword in the form of the clip.

Snakes, swords, skulls, a fist, another sword. This pen has it all. Unfortunately, this pen runs $5,000. Yeah. Believe it. For one pen! 

However, it makes an important point about buying your writer friend a super fancy pen. (Also, the Amazon reviews are pretty great.)

[amazon B006QZ4CBG inline]


The real problem with a fancy pen is that it's worthless. Who is willing to carry a $5,000 pen? Who is this person? Even when you get down to a price that's relatively reasonable, say $100, most writers will keep it in a drawer at home because, damn, the last thing you want to do is lose a $100 pen.

A pen in a drawer at home is a worthless pen.

I've got options though. Two of them, to be precise.

The first is this.

This is a Muji fountain pen. If you want to get into the world of fountain pens, this is the way to go. It's not ostentatious, but it's still a very nice pen. The body is metal, the nib has some designs on it, and the pen itself costs $18. 

[amazon B00MDRZLHA inline]

The second is this.

This is a Tombow rollerball pen. Also about $18. The difference is that this isn't a fountain pen, and also that it's a thick, heavy bastard. This thing feels like a sap, like you could club someone over the head with it and they might not ever get up. Heavy and metal, when translated into pen, feels fancy. 

And here's the real trick to buying a pen for your writer friend. Buy two. This is your way of telling your writer, "It's cool if you lose this thing. Not a big deal."

Only caveat, I don't KNOW that either of these pens was designed by any celebrities. But let's say the Muji pen was crafted based on a design by Cynthia Rothrock and the Tombow...Wesley Snipes. 

[amazon B005HBAKIY inline]


There are two purchasing pitfalls when it comes to journals.

First, there's artisanal bullshit. "Ooo. Look at these handsome journals."

And ooo, being handsome ain't cheap.

Here are some red flags to watch for when looking at a web site that sells notebooks:

If the first image that pops up is someone in an apron who appears to be hand-forging notebooks, do not buy. If the company is in the United States and spells "color" like "colour," do not buy. If the company's web site opens to a page titled something like "Our Story," do not buy.

The second way to go wrong with a notebook gift is to get something like this:

This is a "Smart" Writing Set. Which means you write by hand, then take a picture with your phone and transfer your work to the computer. It costs $200. And it violates the basic rule of using a notebook, which is K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stephanie. I know most people don't use the name Stephanie at the end of that acronym, but I know a Stephanie who needs a lot of reminders to keep it simple). 

[amazon B015A9Z1JK inline]

The Alternative

My advice is to skip the notebooks completely. Your writer knows what they like, and trust me, if you write, you will get no shortage of notebooks from others and as gifts you give yourself. I have Rhodias, Moleskines. I have a journal where the pages are made out of elephant poo. I have a notebook that's apparently meant to be used in a science lab. I have a whole big pile of journals, and they all sit in a box because I only use one at a time.

[amazon B01GRMG6R0 inline]

If someone in my life followed the gift guide here, I realize that I'd be writing on a keyboard straight out of a 90's classroom, in a tent normally used as a shelter for a composting toilet, with a decent pen, an old notebook that's been in my closet for 10 years, and while waiting to hear back from a residency. 

But my slice of heaven isn't yours. What gifts have pleased the writers in your life? Even better, what ridiculously-expensive crap have you seen out there?

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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