The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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Notes on writing (or) The Nicholson Baker Tapes

Over at Kickstarter, I wrote up a few things I learned while writing Annabel Scheme. I will also use this as an excuse to link to this great WSJ round-up of writers’ habits. Nicholson Baker’s routine is almost mystical:

Most days, Nicholson Baker rises at 4 a.m. to write at his home in South Berwick, Maine. Leaving the lights off, he sets his laptop screen to black and the text to gray, so that the darkness is uninterrupted. After a couple of hours of writing in what he calls a dreamlike state, he goes back to bed, then rises at 8:30 to edit his work.

Black screen, gray text! Stay in the dream! Actually, all of Baker’s methods are totally inventive and awesome:

He wrote his first novel, “The Mezzanine,” by dictating to a voice recorder during his commute to work. For his recent novel “The Anthologist,” a first-person narrative by a frustrated poet who’s struggling to write the introduction to a new anthology, he grew out a beard to resemble his character, put on a floppy brown hat, set up a video camera on a tripod and videotaped himself giving poetry lectures.

You know, there’s a surprising amount of voice and transcription in these snippets. For instance, Richard Powers

[…] wrote his last three novels while lying in bed, speaking to a lap-top computer with voice-recognition software.

I need to try this… because it sounds like torture. I think I write very graphically—I think about how words appear, how they’re laid out. Often I’ll consider a sentence and realize the problem is that it just doesn’t look right.

Partially it’s habit, but partially it’s a deeper conviction about how words work on the page. Yeah sure, the natural rhythm of the human voice is great—but when we read, we don’t speak the words in our head. (Most of us don’t.) Words on the page (or the screen) get processed in a different way. It’s faster, flightier, nonlinear. There’s a buffer that’s always looking ahead and looking back, trying to recognize whole chunks of language at a time. All together, it’s very different from listening to someone speak.

So, truth be told, I’m a little suspicious of the writing-by-dictation strategy. Although that doesn’t mean I’m not going to dress up as a character and give fake lectures at some point.


Tim Carmody says…

Actually, Baker’s condition of lying in bed turns out to be very important. Under normal conditions: dictating to a computer is different from both typing on one or simply speaking one’s mind out loud, even if it’s to no one.

This is for the important if obvious reason that as you speak, you see words appearing on the page. It’s not an oral-aural thing anymore OR a visual-mechanical one, but a hybrid – oral-visual. It’s neither speech nor writing as we understand it, but something else. Some kind of… secondary literacy phenomenon. 🙂

I speak the words in my head when I read.

Len says…

I wish the Mac had a killer dictation app. I’d be all over that writing in bed stuff.

Interesting! I wonder if part of the dictation thing is about not stopping yourself as you go along? I know that if I’m writing, I’ll look back on the words I’ve already written too often instead of pushing forward with the narrative in my head. Definitely worth a try.

Tim Carmody says…

If I were writing a novel through dictation, I’d dictate into a tape recorder, then use speech-recognition on the playback. Doing it on the screen is good for some things, but it’s too weird for creative writing.

I’ve always held that the language center I use to speak, even in an extemporaneous situation like a workshop, is different than when I write. Certainly, my vocabulary is, and the style I’ve developed in writing fiction. I could not dictate a novel.

But it is amazing how many writers do, and going back to James Joyce with his failing eyesight, we have examples of writers relying on a vast variety of externalities to accomplish their goals.

This reminds me of something a New Yorker writer told my visiting journalism class: sometimes when he has bad writers block, and it’s really dire (as in, David Remnick has already printed up the little flaps that go on the magazine and say, Inside — —- on Iraq) he will call his wife, and just talk to her about the article, and then she will email him her notes on what he told her, and that’s how the draft gets going. Taking his wife out of that loop doesn’t seem to be an option though. Only she can get the words out of him when things are that stressful.

Tim says…

This is why it’s good to cultivate lots of different modes of writing. I will write an entire essay inside an email or blog comment window, then cut-and-paste and add footnotes. A student of mine this semester wrote one of hers in a series of Skype chats with a friend. Google Voice’s transcription function opens up all sorts of new possibilities…

Writing is going mobile! Just like painting! Eat it, Michaelangelo!

Len says…

google voice has transcription!?! OMG OMG OMG

Len says…

I’m down with Tim’s recommendation – carry a voice recorder (or iPhone) with you everywhere and dictate a chapter whenever the muse strikes.

Does anyone have a Voice invite? Is it possible to play a recording into voice to use their transcription?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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