Monday, December 5, 2011

Talking to Myself

Like many writers, I always depended on routine. Discipline is too high-minded a word for the unvarying schedule that kept me going, kept me producing—three decades, seven books, hundreds of magazine articles, innumerable poems. I’d rise early and get to my desk early; I’d stay there, happily, until the day’s requisite pages were done.

Each writer finds his own approach, and I don’t think it matters more than whether we wash our knees first or our elbows. My method was always the same: initial two drafts handwritten in ink, later drafts typed. I avoided doing early stages on a computer because electronics make it too easy to revise midstream, to second-guess the imagination.

That all changed a few years back. Otherwise very healthy, in my late forties I got hit with progressive (so-called) multiple sclerosis. This is not the version of the disease you read about, with drug therapies that often work. Mine, relatively scarce, eats away at you as insistently as a bulldozer; there’s no off switch. I’m now utterly wheelchair-bound, tire very quickly, and can no longer scribble legibly by hand. I can type with only one finger.

As a result I’ve had to transform entirely the way I write. Superficially, the solution seems a 21st-century privilege of technology. In fact, it’s rather old-fashioned.

Three years ago, while trying to figure out my future, I was faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem: to assemble a 700-page compilation of the finest World War II reporting by my father, George Weller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent. Beyond the difficulty of selecting the right articles, they needed to be fed into my laptop, and I had only six months. My finger was going to wear out rapidly; scanning smudged photocopies of old newspapers just got me gobbledygook; and I couldn’t afford a typist.

I described my quandary to a friend, along with the hope that in some glowing, rosy tomorrow I’d be able to talk to my screen and watch words appear. He waited for me to finish basking in my dream, then said, “Wake up.” (His phrase was more vivid.) “You can buy the program this afternoon, cheap. At any computer shop. Even a dummy can work it.”

He was right, of course, and pouring someone else’s words into a machine was a foolproof way to learn the tricks and teach the software the vagaries of my voice. But could I compose a new novel? My sole experience with trying to speak creative thoughts aloud, twenty-five years earlier, had been disastrous. On assignment in Oman, I’d dictated several cassettes’ worth of immortal travel impressions then returned to Manhattan to find them full of useless malarkey. A verbal altitude sickness, embarrassingly brought on at sea level.

By sheer luck my novel (The Land of Later On, about a jazz pianist improvising his way through the afterlife) was narrated in the first person, so it was natural to talk my way through. The chapters were short, also, which seemed right for the story—though now that it’s done and published, I can’t help wondering if this may have been due to my slightly hindered breathing.

I’m still troubled by how, because my voice changes throughout the day, the dictation accuracy level veers wildly. Because I haven’t formally established myself to the software as separate blabbermouths depending on the time, it can’t know which me is talking. (This is doubtless specific to my situation.)

The result is that usually I have to repeat at least part of each sentence, sometimes a whole clause, to get it right. At first I tried to storm on ahead, to preserve momentum; but when I’d go back to a paragraph, even moments later, I found I couldn’t remember what I meant nor reconstruct it. It’s normal to be unable to decipher bits of your own handwriting days later, but the frustration is far more profound when you can’t make sense of what you just said. It took me a while to get used to the annoyance of having to speak the same line over and over and over again, for almost anything becomes ludicrous when repeated so many times verbatim. The temptation is to change a few words, simply to preserve sanity.

My great advance was to switch from using a headset (I’ve wrestled with numerous models, and always lost) to a futuristic black microphone on a silver pedestal. As a few helpful colleagues have reminded me, I’m now in august company. John Milton, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, and Alfred Hitchcock all dictated masterpieces—though the age of the private secretary has given way to the age of the personal computer.

I have no excuse.


  1. Think I'm falling ln love with Anthony,his wit, his self-deprecating manner. Would that we all could deal with our own challenges with the same patience and brilliance!

  2. Congratulations for writing such a consuming, seamless book (Land of Later On) while learning as you wrote. I have often wondered if I could dictate creative writing, probably because I am sure I could not. So congratulations, as well, for finding your voice in the new writing mode.

  3. Excellent, Anthony. Informative and a good butt-kickin' for the rest of us who face down the muse everyday.

    I can't want for my copy of your new book to show up. And I remember I owe you some fried chicken.