I have turned over a new leaf, having added speech-recognition software to my bag of tricks. My computer now writes down what I say.
The plan here is to spare my carpal tunnels and free my thumbs for twiddling. Theoretically I spend a large amount of time with my hands on a keyboard, a practice that has proven injurious to thousands of typists. In actuality, I am sure I spend far less time at this task than do regular clerical workers. Still, I’m not eager to experience any sort of repetitive-motion disorder, and this seemed worth a shot.
Dictation feels surprisingly odd, given that I’ve read my weekly essays aloud while composing them for nearly seven years — a practice inspired by their original form as radio broadcasts. The initial intent was to ferret out words and phrases that sounded awkward, however acceptable they might appear in print. In the process, I discovered that my written work also benefited. Constructions that failed the oral test often proved, on reflection, to be typographic troublemakers too.
Reading words from a page, however, is a good bit different than plucking them out of thin air. On the face of it, this wouldn’t seem to make any difference — after all, I remain the motive intellect behind the curtain — but somehow my sense of shaping these sentences seems to be diminishing. I seem to be grasping for words in a way that I don’t when I’m typing.
This is doubtless a function of practice, akin to a competent pianist’s facile melody-making or the seemingly effortless way an experienced cook can assemble a meal. In each case, the act of combining the basics into a coherent whole has become habitualized to the point of ritual. Asked to describe the process, a musician or chef may find that verbalizing it is far from second nature, though working from a score or a recipe might make things easier. This echoes the experience of many writers of my acquaintance: Editing is almost always easier than creation, and creation can be facilitated through ritual.
Some authors go to fairly elaborate lengths to re-create conditions that have reliably generated material in the past. Everything from tea ceremonies to morning strolls to the arrangement of flowers or objects on the desk may contribute to a given person’s formula for fostering a conducive set and setting. The important thing seems to be getting started.
Perhaps the awkwardness I’m experiencing under this new regime has more to do with the cracking of habit than with being at a loss for words. In this regard, Kurt Vonnegut has described writing a novel as the easiest job in the world — one simply writes down whatever one pleases and keeps rewriting until it is wholly satisfactory. There is no deadline and no right answer. Writer’s block, if it exists at all, seems to be a phenomenon of that first “whatever one pleases” phase of the work. My evident skepticism concerning writer’s block is based on my observation that it seems to have less to do with a failure of imagination than with an excess of self-importance. If one is unable to put words to paper, my interpretation is that one simply has nothing to say, and both the world of literature and the ranks of legitimate-but-starving authors would benefit enormously if those with nothing to say would put down their pens and take a hike.
Editing others’ material has reinforced a pair of key convictions about writing: that most writers are more impressed with their work than it warrants, and that just about any piece of writing can be retooled to make it clearer, more concise and more interesting. The widely repeated suggestion that successful authors are those who are willing to kill their babies holds true: It is counterproductive to become too attached to one’s efforts.
Returning to the subject and method of the present essay, the most immediate benefit to this editor/publisher of a small-circulation, staff-less journal is likely to be in transcribing manuscripts from other writers. Poetry, in particular — given its idiosyncratic punctuation, usage and form as well as its inherently oral nature — seems particularly suited to this approach. The present essay, however, has taken me at least twice as long to compose as have other recent efforts. Whether this is a function of the new software itself, the fledgling nature of my undertaking, or the inherent difficulty of making solipsistic reflection even passably interesting is hard to gauge. My twiddling definitely needs work.
[Cecil Bothwell is the author of The Icarus Glitch: Another Duck Soup Reader and the editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone. Copyright 2002, Cecil L. Bothwell III, all rights reserved.]