Speaking into the keyboard

Monday, 9 November 2009 — 9:10am | Computing, Literature

A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the peculiar working habits of novelists, which may be a good companion piece to the Where I Write gallery of writers’ messy studies. Margaret Atwood is her usual making-it-sound-so-easy self (“Put your left hand on the table. Put your right hand in the air. If you stay that way long enough, you’ll get a plot”), and Michael Ondaatje’s trademark cubism suddenly makes a lot more sense when you consider that he reassembles his drafts with scissors and tape. And then there’s Richard Powers:

Richard Powers, whose books are often concept-driven, intricately plotted and stuffed with arcane science, wrote his last three novels while lying in bed, speaking to a lap-top computer with voice-recognition software.

To write “Generosity,” his recent novel about the search for a happiness gene, he worked like this for eight or nine hours a day. He uses a stylus pen to edit on a touch screen, rewriting sentences and highlighting words.

“It’s recovering storytelling by voice and recovering the use of the hand and all that tactile immediacy,” Mr. Powers says of the process. “I like to use different parts of my brain.”

If you are at all familiar with Richard Powers’ fiction, this will not surprise you in the least. He is not, to my recollection, the only tech-savvy author to work this way; I seem to recall Douglas Adams saying something about doing the same in one of the essays published in The Salmon of Doubt, although it is entirely possible my memory is off and I’ve been thinking of Mr Powers all along.

Dictating a piece of writing of any length, let alone a book, is not something I could fathom doing myself. I am a deeply nonlinear thinker who takes ideas preformed as block chords and splashes them on the page in fragments of verbal shrapnel, and for me the writing process is largely a matter of bridging broken sentences and putting Humpty together again. This does not lend itself well to finishing long-form works and revising them in drafts.

One of the clear advantages to dictation, it seems, is that the linearity of the spoken word compels you to finish what you begin. But speaking in clear and complete sentences that convey whole ideas is not one of the strengths of a nonlinear mind. Anyone who has listened to me deliver extemporaneous remarks (which account for nearly all of my remarks) can attest that it doesn’t take long for me to break off into tangents and parentheticals. I like the control and precision of the written word, and somehow there must be a way to adjust its nets to capture the spontaneity of speech.

That is where the Apple Wireless Keyboard comes in. You may not have been aware of it, dear reader, but I have been writing this post “blind”. As I speak—and that’s what it really feels like, speaking—I am staring at the ceiling and typing in bed. My computer is on the other side of the room. The experience is most like that of sitting down with a notebook and pen and writing single-spaced within the rules, so as to leave no room for correction, adjustment, or retroactive insertion. The difference, of course, is that I am doing it on a keyboard, which is both faster and less taxing on the wrists.

This method of composition seems ill suited to works of an academic nature, where I have to juggle citations, or even blog posts that rely heavily on quotations and links (like the beginning of the post you are reading now, which was most assuredly not written blind)—but when it comes to forms of writing where the primary challenge is to force oneself to improvise and forge on ahead, it may turn out to be ideal. Failing that, it would still be a fruitful exercise that I am pleased to be have tried this once.

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5 rejoinders to “Speaking into the keyboard”

  1. I can’t imagine trying to dictate anything. I realize it’s technically more efficient to speak than type, but my ability to process visual data is much greater than my ability to process audio: I’d forget what I was talking about as I spoke. I re-read what I write, too; constant half-steps back before I move forward.

    Tuesday, 10 November 2009 at 6:38pm

  2. Yes, and it’s astonishing that Powers composes by dictation when you consider the meticulous polish and structure in his work (although I haven’t read his most recent novels, so I can’t attest to their style). I have to wonder what kind of pace he sets and how much he has to pull out the stylus and intervene. Being able to go back and fix or insert something is something I think of as so essential to the activity of typing that there’s a real thrill to doing without it, like walking on a tightrope without a net.

    I have a hunch, though, that oral (and aural) memory can be learned, and what I call linear thinking acquired with practice. Musicians have improvised some incredible long-form structures going all the way back to Bach, parliamentarians used to deliver remarks on the fly with a flair that few politicians can hope to duplicate today, and there is of course the whole lost art of reciting epic poems. But when we are so accustomed to acquiring information visually, that may shape (and limit) our strategies for reassembling memories and assembling new patterns. (I have a far easier time staring at paragraphs in clumps than listening to someone speak, although I may be in the minority here given the popularity of podcasts and the like.)

    Tuesday, 10 November 2009 at 10:31pm

  3. Aaron

    There’s no “Like” button. How am I supposed to comment on this post?

    Wednesday, 11 November 2009 at 3:41am

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