Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Famous Dictators and the Cave Of Caerbannog

BROTHER MAYNARD: It reads, 'Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Aramathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of...uuggggggh'.


BROTHER MAYNARD: '... the Castle of uuggggggh'.


BROTHER MAYNARD: He must have died while carving it.

SIR LAUNCELOT: Oh, come on!

BROTHER MAYNARD: Well, that's what it says.

KING ARTHUR: Look, if he was dying, he wouldn't bother to carve 'uuggggh'. He'd just say it.

BROTHER MAYNARD: Well, it's what's carved in the rock.

SIR GALAHAD: Perhaps he was dictating.

KING ARTHUR: Oh, shut up.


But with all due respect to the King, perhaps he was. It's not unknown. Henry James dictated much of his later work, as did Joeseph Conrad; and Mark Twain dictated his memoirs and other minor pieces.

The topic comes up because, as the result of Repetitive Stress Injury, the estimable MFW Curran is using Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate his work-in-progress.

Now, talking a book into existence has always seemed like a great idea to me--and has also seemed impossible for someone constituted like mine own self. I mean, the way I talk and the way I write are certainly somehow related, but so are Conrad Hilton and Paris Hilton. That doesn't mean anybody would confuse the two.

On the other hand, Tim Stretton pointed out that Jack Vance used speech-recognition software for his later novels, and that there is no discernible change in Vance's inimitable style (and Mr. Stretton, who is something of a Vance scholar, would know).

I do my thinking on the page; the page reflects my sentences back to me, and my intent and the sentences continue to interact until I get at least within shouting distance of something that satisfies me. Dictating has always seemed impossible because my words would be spilling out into the ether, and would only be retreived to be scrutinized (and mumbled over and over under my breath) well after their utterance.

But then I realized that dictation, in the classic sense, and speech recognition are not really the same thing. Dictation is speaking to a person or a recording device without any immediate feedback. Speech recognition software, on the other hand, spills your words onto the computer screen. Dictation is impromptu composition, while speech recognition might be thought of as typing carried out by other means.

Dictating seems to me an impossible form of composition, but I can begin to imagine composing by speaking and seeing my words appear on a screen--though Matt's posts on the topic make it apparent that there can be many frustrations (many flocking frustrations) built into the process. And with the endless in-process revision I do as I write, I shudder to think what it would look like as I tried a sentence first this way, then that way, then upside-down and in reverse...

For the moment, I'll continue to write in my standard hunched-over, gnarled-shouldered, sweaty-tense fashion--but it's nice to know there are viable alternatives.

Alternatives that don't result in ...uuggggggh...being carved into stone simply because I said it.


Tim Stretton said...

I think you've touched on the key point here, David: the mediation between what's in your head and what ends up on the page.

The act of translating thought into written words is part of the process, whether that's handwriting, typing, dictation or monkeys on a keyboard.

If you change the mediation process it's inevitable that, initially at least, you'll change the outcome. Every method of transcription has a different speed, so speech is faster than typing, which in turn is faster than handwriting. This alters the amount of processing time your brain has.

The brain is pretty flexible, though; I'm sure after a period of adaptation equilibrium ends up restored.

Matt Curran said...

David, Tim
those are interesting points. At the moment dictating halves my productivity but only because naturally I am one of those tongue tied individuals (or someone with dyslexia of the lips!) Which means I really have to think about what I say before I say it, rather than type what I think.

I reckon the benefits of doing it this way would be foremost the rehabilitation of my right hand, but also training my mind -- as Tim says, making it flexible enough to dictate at a steady and coherent pace.

The reflection of sentence construction David is talking about is very much how I write, and it feels natural to me to spill words onto a page without them ever having being read aloud - than it does sitting at a computer with a traffic controllers headset on ranting down a microphone or trying to construct some delicate prose.
Without the flocking...
But I will persevere, because that's really the only option open to me.

Alis said...

Years ago, we were all encouraged to use dictaphones at work to make things easier for the secretaries, but I got around this by doing all my own typing. As a consequence, I have never managed to dictate a simple letter, much less begin to contemplate dictating a novel. I suspect that somehow, the silence of typing and the motor action of a bit of my body other than my language-speaking apparatus taps into the subconscious bits of my brain where the story and its visualisation lie and that, if I had to do it via speech, this would bring a greater degree of conscious thought into the whole thing and make me tongue-tied and horribly self-conscious and therefore unable to work. A
nd if I had RSI as badly as Matt? I guess I'd just have to bite the bullett. Though bits of lead between the teeth probably wouldn't be all that helpful...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Well, most people seem to be able to type faster than they can scribble, but I don't seem to be amongst their number.

But for me the speed of transcription isn't the bottleneck in either case. I'm just slow, slow, slow.

David Isaak said...

Heya, MFW--

I figure a real writer will figure out how to write even if it involves spelling the words out with semaphore flags, but you're right--it's just a little odd having the spoken word serve as the medium.

Although I do find I mumble and mutter while I write. Which may be one of the reasons I've never been able to write like, say, Aliya, who is fond of writing in coffee shops. I'm too self-conscious for that--which is a good thing, or now they'd have me in some sort of Home.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

There were many years when I used to write things down by hand and have them typed up by secretaries, but word processing changed that, and I've been happier ever since.

The look of my handwriting, though legible enough in a third-grader sort of way, really throws me off stride. It just doesn't have the official, neutral authority of a good font. (And Courier, I might add, has always seemd like the least authoritative of all fonts.) I think my writing would be quite different if it passed through handwriting first--though I suppose I'd find a way to amend it in revision.

I'll be watching Matt's little venture with interest to see if, a few months hence, he is reporting that that it's the best thing that ever happened to him. As I said before, the idea of just spilling the words out of my mouth onto the page is appealing, but, like you, I can't quite imagine it.