Guest post by Carol Keeley
I wrecked my neck last July–three blown discs, bone spurs, stenosis, a semi-choked spinal cord. For the next eight months, I was unable to write. On a good day, I could type for about ten minutes or write briefly by hand. Then mid-winter, I compounded the injury and was unable to write at all, or hold a book, or walk without clutching a wall. Prior to July, I’d had a daily yoga practice for more than eight years and had written daily for more than twenty-five years. “One has the choice of coming before the world as a writer or actually being one,” wrote Saul Bellow. For me, being one meant working at it every blessed day. Which I loved doing and did to excess. This contributed to my neck’s collapse.
Friends and family quickly suggested speech recognition technology. This was met with mulish resistance. I still have no idea why. Much of it is attachment, I’m sure, attachment to the ritualistic aspects of writing. Once, I hoisted the thick white diner coffee mug my friend John Rodgers gave me decades ago for a Christmas present–before he died of AIDS, when he was still the world’s best thrift store Santa–the mug that never left my desk except for trips to the coffee machine: “If this ever breaks,” I announced, “just put me down.” I was certain I wouldn’t be able to write without it. But early in my injury, I stood up from the couch with the Times in one hand and the mug slipped from the other. The spinal compression had weakened my grip. I had yet to realize this. The mug shattered into fat ceramic shards on the hard tile. I looked at it, unable to cry. “Well, that makes weird sense,” I told the startled dog.
It makes sense, too, that if any writer could use speech recognition fluidly, it would be Richard Powers. In a compelling essay, which he wrote from bed by speaking to a tablet in his lap, Powers says he hasn’t “touched a keyboard in years” and admits it took him “weeks to get over the oddness of auditioning myself in an empty room.” He keeps august company: Homer, of course; Milton recited Paradise Lost while blind; Stendhal, Dostoevsky and Henry James spoke their novels into being as others typed. Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens composed while walking, where, as Nietzsche claimed, “all truly great thoughts” were conceived. In Hindu and early Buddhist philosophy, sacred works were exclusively oral. Tradition dictates that text be corrected against the spoken. The written word is considered a crutch for the weak-minded, for those who can’t memorize. This is how the Vedas were transmitted for centuries.
From Socrates to Derrida, we can map a parallel duel between speech and text in the West. I don’t believe one is inherently better. I just can’t seem to manage what Powers calls the “huge cognitive readjustment” required. And, in my experience, speaking is a direly different thing than writing.