Telling Stories - 2
On NPR the other day, Terry Gross was interviewing Richard Powers, the author of The Echo Maker, a novel about the neurology of self and its occasional veering from “reality.” While the book itself intrigues me, and I will no doubt read it soon, another aspect of the interview caught my attention as a writer.
Powers has used computers for his writing for many years, typing as writers have done ever since the typewriter was invented: letter by letter. (He admits that he never learned touch typing very well, and tends to use the two-finger technique—a practice that can, with practice, be pretty fast.) He has thought a great deal, however, about the difference between writing, with its focus on letters and words, and reading, which sometimes gets its meaning without really noticing the letters and words. Speaking and listening, of course, often bypass literal language altogether, communicating meaning more directly, seemingly mind to mind. So in his latest novel, Powers chose to use voice-recognition software, which allows the writer to dictate aloud and let the computer compose the words and sentences.
My English teacher in high school used to urge us to read poetry aloud to ourselves “if you want to really understand it.” As Powers says, we use different parts of the brain to process written words and sentences, or to get meaning through our ears. That extra literal step is necessarily one of translation, and translation always loses—or at least changes—some part of meaning. To be sure, much of our understanding of spoken communication comes from cues we get that are not contained in the words—tone of voice, emphasis, facial expressions and other body language. Many times we can actually hear a person better if we can see their face as they talk. These cues are largely unconscious, both in sending and in receiving.
Powers told Terry Gross that his experiment came from an awareness that dialog, for example, seems more realistic if it can be spoken. A reader usually “plays the dialog in his or her head” as sound to get the real sense of it. Therefore, Powers surmised, if it is spoken from the beginning instead of being typed into a keyboard, it will convey more meaning and feel more natural.
The idea sounded true as I listened—and of course that’s what he was saying—but later, as I thought about the possibility of using the technique myself, I realized that Richard Powers speaks easily and comfortably. He’s not only used to face-to-face conversations, he’s skillful at it. Not all of us are so lucky. I, for example, struggle when I speak. When I write I may do as much stammering and repeating myself as when I talk, but the reader doesn’t have to experience that. I can take a half-hour to compose a paragraph, editing and musing on word choices, while the reader gets what I’m saying in ten seconds.
I don’t claim that when I’m finished, my writing flows the way Richard Powers’s spoken words do. Eloquence comes easy for some people whether they are writing or speaking. I’m so used to writing, and so unused to speaking, that I often use the same mental processes to do both—I edit in my head. Whatever skill I have with words, what comes out of my mouth does not exactly flow. And, of course, I’m keenly aware of that as I speak, so very little of what I mean gets spoken and even less gets understood by my listener. If I dictated a book into a computer, it would take me longer to edit the result than it would to depend upon my typing skills.
I’ll accept his assertion that letters and words sometimes get in the way of communicating what we mean. And I’ll try reading my work aloud to test it aurally before I declare it done.
I watched a movie last night about a young woman who tried to write a note to a man to express how she felt about him. Page after unfinished page was torn from the tablet before she finally filled one with the words “Thank You!” over and over. Then, she ripped that page off as well, and wrote simply, “I love you.”
Fortunately, I don’t have to waste that much paper before I can find the words to express how I feel or what I think. My computer doesn’t have to hold all the wrong words, the weak arguments, the outrageous trivialities or the confused thinking that my mind produces. As it is, the poor machine is filling up with stuff, much of which would be meaningless to anyone else now, and will certainly be meaningless even to me in a short time.
The stories that I try to tell, especially essays such as this one, seldom flow into a reader’s mind as effortlessly as prose by Vladimir Nabokov. Still, I’d like to make the process of communication as effective as I can. I’ll try different techniques to sneak past that letter-word-paragraph-sentence trap. At least, I’ll keep in mind that good dialog in a story ought to feel as though it has been spoken, even if it’s taken me a week to edit. And I’ll read it aloud to someone whenever possible. Maybe we will both learn something about what I’m trying to say.
December 14, 2006