Sunday, September 18, 2011

Learning to write all over again

Every word hurts.

I have barely posted anything on this blog for three years, because I have been battling a condition which is undiagnosed and mystifying (the medical term is idiopathic), and which gives me pain in my arms and elsewhere.

I have sat down to write lots of times, but I seldom succeed. My problem is that my writing process developed at a time in my life when I could think with my fingers — revising sentences, toying with paragraph order, using asides and punctuation to signal to myself where I would need to come back and revisit a point or look up a source. Without forming conscious intentions, I would set my fingers free to monkey with the text, trying out ideas quickly and striking on serendipitous solutions. This worked great when my fingers worked great.

But now I can't use my fingers and arms to control a computer, except for the occasional minute or two of typing, for which I always end up paying dearly. Instead, I use voice recognition software and a mouse I control with my feet, both of which are sorry substitutes for the real thing. It takes me far longer to do things nowadays, and everything I do on a computer is painful and frustrating. The kind of fiddling with my writing I used to do on the computer is out of the question.

Imagine that your keyboard typed the wrong word once a sentence, and going back to fix it screwed things up further half the time. Now coat your mouse with cactus needles, and throw some on your chair seat for good measure. (Sitting down hurts, and toes were not meant to control mice.)

If I am to continue being a writer in any meaningful way, I need to rethink the mechanics of how I write.

Here are my new rules:

1. Write everything longhand
Dragon Naturally Speaking is the leading (and best) commercially available voice recognition software by far, but it is inexplicably overrated by otherwise sober reviewers like David Pogue of the New York Times. It's decent at transcribing text when you give it full sentences, because it uses grammatical context and statistics on word sequences to tell if you mean "dissent" or "descent". But even that is prone to error. When I told it "word sequences", it guessed I meant "Word seek through this" and proceeded on a whim to highlight the entire document. And it is horrible at understanding standalone words, commands and letters; trying to change a single letter in this sentence proved impossible, and I had to resort to typing. I can forget about using it for my livelihood, which, unfortunately, is computer programming.
2. Remember Jean-Dominique Bauby
… You know, the author of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Things could always be worse. That guy is one memoir up on almost all of us, and had twenty fewer fingers and toes to work with and no voice.
3. Be brief
My condition is a good excuse to take a machete to my writing, which is too verbose anyway. Cutting half out of anything I write improves it enormously. (E. B. White liked to cut two thirds.) Now, each keystroke I jettison has the added benefit of reducing the pain, as long as I do it in advance. So I need to do my editing down in longhand, before I touch the computer.
4. Be a worse writer
It goes against my nature to hit publish until I feel a post works in its entirety, from word choice to clarity of my overall points. But following my nature has meant I don't publish anything. That's got to give. As soon as the piece might possibly be ready, I will consider it done, starting right now –

E. B. White quote photo by Robin Riat; Bauby-inspired photo by Jessica Wissel

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