Linda Henry

Thatwhich

Lessons from writing out loud, Part 2

February 21, 2016

On my first day using voice recognition software, I wrote: “I’m so self-conscious about my word choice, and I’m thinking about my writing in a way that seems very foreign. When my hands are typing on a keyboard, are my thoughts so choppy?”

Of course I barely read the instructions before starting to use the software. So I was two and a half weeks into it before I noticed this bit of advice at the top of a pop-up box:

“Place the cursor where dictation should go. Think of your whole sentence.”

I wondered, “Do other writers think of their whole sentence before writing it?” For me, it felt impossible. It still feels impossible. It leads me to the conclusion I probably write better than I talk, because when I write, I go back and edit my words. For instance, weeks after writing that previous sentence, I considered changing “It leads me to the conclusion” to “Ergo.” The software heard that as “error go” the first couple times before getting it right, which had the effect of calling me out as pretentious.

When you use a word like “ergo” in conversation, you can emphasize it in a way that lets people know you’re just playing with the language. But when the words that appear on your screen are “error go,” it’s like being at a loud party where the person you’re talking to keeps going “huh?” and making a confused face, and you realize you’re not that funny or ironic; in fact, you are just socially awkward.

In many ways, the practice of writing out loud has helped me think in full sentences. Sometimes they form as I’m drifting off to sleep, or in the middle of the night, or at other times when I’m not sitting in front of my computer. Part of the reason is that firing up my laptop and pulling up the software takes a bit more time than grabbing a notebook and starting to write. My brain is getting used to the idea that it needs to retain those whole sentences, let them play in my head like lyrics to a song that might be worth writing.

One morning while my hand was still in the cast, those sentences were starting to stack up. My plan was to get up, make coffee, take a shower and wash my hair — no small feat with one hand in a plastic bag — and then start working at my day job, all by 8 AM. But I didn’t want to lose those thoughts. In the past I would’ve scribbled in my journal for five or ten minutes or as long as my hand held out. Instead I took 20 minutes to write out loud. I was working at home and could skip the shampoo.

Before my hand surgery, I wouldn’t have taken the time — because of the pain and also because of the sense that personal writing is a covert activity and I really should be getting ready for work. A few nights earlier the voice inside my head woke me up and reminded me to take the damn pain pill. Now the same voice reminded me that my creative storage space was limited and I should download the sentences or risk losing them. More than that, take the time and honor my writing practice, this morning and every morning I can.

Selected Works

Essays
My daughter likes depressing books. “Someone dies in the first chapter,” Grace says gleefully of a novel she can’t put down. Maybe this inclination comes naturally, growing up with the ghost of a sister she never knew. 
In which my brilliant son prevails against middle-school bullies. Adapted from "A Voice Not My Own"