Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


Doubtless many in the blogosphere will be all over Richard Powers' essay on voice recognition software in today's NYT. I haven't read him, so I am not one of the rabid minions.

The essay extols the joys of the technology, citing many fine writers who composed aloud--Proust, Dickens, Wallace Stevens.

On one hand (what opportunity for punning!) , Powers must be on to something. He did win the National Book Award. And all writers are well-advised to read their work aloud. What better way to detect a clunky adjective or find those typos the eye misses? Further, Powers feels the divine connection of word to paper--or in this case, to computer--is facilitated when the creator isn't hampered by the qwerty keyboard.

I read the article with something verging on dread. I suffer from severe carpal tunnel syndrome, and fear it is only a matter of time before I am forced off the keyboard. Yeah, I know, I can have the surgery. But the surgery is only a temporary fix: your carpal tunnel will return. And while I am a trouper regarding most medical procedures, I cannot abide anything related to my hands. I won't even get a manicure, much less allow somebody to cut into my wrists. I mean, hands are rather essential, and you have only two. And if you an ambidextrous type, like me, you want them both. Intact.

Laser surgery is increasingly replacing the old-fashioned slice-'em-recover-for-months technique. I might consider that when the time comes. Might. If I am given lots and lots of Valium before, during, and immediately afterward. Until then, I type, I hurt, I sleep in big wrist braces.

Beyond the physical aspects of voice vs. typing lay the psychological concerns. Powers admits "writing" to the sound of his own voice was jarring initially, but freed from the keyboard, he happily grew accustomed to speaking his work. He likes the speed, even if he must go back to fine tune those words the computer "mishears."

I think if I wrote using VRS I'd go mad. Just moving from pen and paper to computer was difficult, but typing is easier than writing. I am no longer able to hand write much more than a grocery list. Thus, the computer.

Speaking my writing, to me, almost doesn't seem like writing. Rather, it would be speechmaking, that old-fashioned form of discourse used before the advent of electronic media. I suspect my work would suffer. I am a person who needs to see the words on the virtual page. That is, I need to produce them. I need to see how the words fit together, what the sentence looks like. After all, most contemporary writing is not intended to be read aloud. It is, Powers writes, "subvocalized." Heard internally. Most readers hear internally as they read; characters' voices are a critical part of the imagined world one enters while reading. Or writing.

Of course, every writer's method (not that I am comparing my unknown worm self to the Great Powers) differs, and whatever works is the best method. Though I can see all manner of Powers wanna-bes rushing off to wherever one purchases vrs (Wherever that might be. Target?) in the futile hopes of duplicating his efforts.

Method fascinates. Read any interview with an author and the subject comes up. Joan Didion begins "The Year of Magical Thinking" by opening MS Word. In "Writing Matters," Julia Alvarez describes her writing ritual thus:

"Even as recently as this very day, I walk into my study first thing in the morning, and I fill up my bowl of clear water and place it on my desk. And though no one told me to do this, I somehow feel this is the right way to start a writing day." (279)

Alvarez composes on a computer, by the way, correcting printed drafts with colored pens.

Hemingway, in Paris with Hadley, rented an unheated room in a hotel. From "Miss Stein Instructs":

"(he wrote) a room that looked across all the roofs and the chimneys of the high hill of the quarter...Up in the room I had a bottle of kirsch that we had brought back from the mountains and I took a drink of kirsch when I would get toward the end of story or the end of the day's work...It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day." (11-13)

The sketch goes on to say a great deal more about writing, including the now-shopworn adages about stopping when you know what happens next and writing the truest sentence you know. Shopworn, but still effective. Kirsch, a Parisian view, a room devoted strictly to writing, along with the time and money to do so, are also helpful. But they will not make you Hemingway.

Annie Dillard disagrees with a view. Much of "The Writing Life" is devoted to the hardships of writing, the mind-numbing labor of it, the sense of meaninglessness that pervades most writers' lives. Why are we spending all this time lining up words into sentences and paragraphs and pages when, most likely, we will be unread? A fine question. One I ask myself daily, if not hourly, following up with a roundly severe questioning of my abilities. But back to Dillard:

"Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark...Once, fifteen years ago, I wrote in a cinder block cell overlooking a parking lot." (27)

Voice recognition software. MS Word. Bowls of water. Views. Kirsch. None of the above. What is a budding writer to do?

Find her own way. Or his. In writing this blog, I realize I have few set methods. No rituals. Maybe this is why I am not a famous writer.

I do not have a room of my own. I have a study, shared with Hockeyman. I do have a desk of sorts--a length of countertop perched on two filing cabinets. Atop this desk I have a black and white photograph of Hockeyman and Kitty. I took this photograph for a class in graduate school. I printed and matted it myself. Kitty was a still a kitten, with fuzz and a teeny tail. Hockeyman's hair fell halfway down his back in gorgeous curls. Other items: a mug filled with disused pens. A red paper mache bowl. A map of Michigan printed in 1904. A small clock H-man gave me. A cheap desk lamp. A power strip. This laptop.

But I don't always write here. Sometimes I write in bed, propping the computer on pillows. Sometimes I write at the kitchen table, but it's too high and aggravates my hands. Sometimes I sit on the floor in the living room, propping the laptop on a thick book. Cookbooks are handy for this.

But no chants,no kirsch, no water. No prayers or incantations. No views. The truth is I just don't have the time--I grab whatever moments are available. And until the unlikely day when I am discovered by Amanda Urban or somehow end up writing full time, my method will remain unvarnished: slogging away on the laptop whenever I can.

Julia Alvarez: Something to Declare. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 1998

Annie Dillard: The Writing Life. New York: Harper and Row. 1989.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribners. 1964.


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