Talking to Myself: How Dictation Software Helped Me Navigate Pandemic Pain
From Leonardo da Vinci to Zadie Smith, Kim Beil on the Many Ways to Get Words on the Page
All my voicemail messages now include accidentally spoken punctuation. Can’t wait to see you exclamation point, I say. When are you coming home question mark. Months of sitting for Zoom calls and classes left me with excruciating sciatica in the summer of 2020. I couldn’t stay still long enough to write on a computer. Instead, I wrote while walking, using speech-to-text software. Now, almost two years later, speaking into my smartphone feels incomplete with punctuation.
“To have nerve” has long suggested strength in English, a result of conflating nerves with tendons in early medicine. By the late 19th century nerves acquired a new association. The diagnosis of neurasthenia, also described as modern nervousness or what we might call anxiety, was thought to be caused by the overstimulation of modern life. In this view, nerves could be damaged by excessive use. Subjects were either rendered numb to further stimulation or they lived in a constant state of hypervigilance and shock.
Sciatica is no more visible than neurasthenia. In neurasthenia, the shocks of the external world create psychological pain. In sciatica, the body shocks itself. And then it creates psychological pain. I lived in fear of being shocked, as if my body was running an experiment on me. The electric pain remained, present but invisible, for months.
I couldn’t sit, couldn’t stand still, couldn’t lay down, even to sleep. Standing desks and ergonomic chairs were no help. Ditto for physical therapy, chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, massage, medication and even steroid injections. In the absence of an acute visible injury, the shooting pain seemed like a bad metaphor. It was the prolonged panic of 2020 incarnate.
Virginia Woolf points to a strange absence of literature about illness in her essay “On Being Ill.” Among the explanations she cites is a lack of language: “let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to the doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other… so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.”Why do we have to get the words out? What would happen if we didn’t preserve them on paper, ivory, wax, magnetic tape, or silicon chips?
At the hospital, I overheard another patient respond to the pain descriptor offered by a nurse as if answering to his own name. I went by the same name: Shooting. I answered to it because it was loud, a slur yelled in the street. I could not live another lifetime by this name. This word and the pain scale, the shuddering scaffold of numbers one to ten, was the only language on offer. Language, my usual refuge—especially its conventional form and posture—seemed only to cause me more pain.
For relief, I walked. I walked for hours each day and into the night. Initially I listened to audiobooks and podcasts. But soon I began speaking quietly into my smartphone, dictating emails, then essays. There’s a long history of walking writers, from the Peripatetic philosophers to Wordsworth, Nietzsche and Thoreau. The literature of walking multiplied again in the new millennium. Duncan Minshull’s anthology The Vintage Book of Walking and Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking were followed by at least a dozen more encomia to the creative potential of walking, as well as a parallel track of scientific studies that supported these adoring odes.
My story is not a paean to walking and creativity. I enjoy walking, sure. But, I wasn’t walking because I thought it would help me trace the path of an idea or find new ones. I walked all day because I had to. Because when I stopped walking, the pain chased me down. If I was going to keep writing, I had to do so while walking.
As an amateur runner, the relief I found in movement was a careful-what-you-wish-for curse. In training for an ultra-marathon the year before my injury, I’d run for several hours at a time. I loved moving through the landscape under my own power. I craved the challenge, the concentrated quiet, and the accomplishment. In a race there’s always a finish line. On the other side of it, you know that you have achieved something extraordinary by the strength of your own determination. At the height of my injury, I feared there was no finish line. What was I persevering for, except more pain?
I searched for role models. How had others suffered and survived? Surely I wasn’t the first writer to walk away from the desk. Edith Wharton and Marcel Proust famously wrote in bed. August Wilson and Thomas Wolfe wrote standing up. Virginia Woolf wrote at a standing desk for the first half of her career. Later in life, by the time she wrote “On Being Ill,” she’d sunk into a low chair with a board balanced across the arms. The stillness of all these options tormented me.Walking writers and artists often relied on an older, more portable technology to get their ideas down: the notebook.
Dictation promised a longer leash. Dostoyevsky relied on (then married) his secretary. Henry James, his amanuensis recalled, needed the rhythm of her Remington typewriter to accompany his words. James Joyce employed Samuel Beckett, whose faithful recording transcribed the entire soundscape of “his master’s voice,” including, once, an aside to a visitor at the door.
Roland Barthes highlights the satisfactions of “vocal writing” in The Pleasure of the Text: “If it were possible to imagine an aesthetic of textual pleasure, it would have to include: writing aloud.” Jack Kerouac aimed to be his own transcriptionist. With his practice of “spontaneous prose,” he tried to capture the “actual format of [his] mind,” never pausing to find the right word or to self-edit.
Audio recording would seem to guarantee the spontaneity that Kerouac sought. The first sound recordings, made in the late 1850s by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, were not meant to be played back. Instead, they scratched sounds into graphic shapes on blackened paper. Thomas Edison’s phonograph, a similar but later invention, did manage to play back sounds that were recorded first on tinfoil then on wax cylinders. The machine was used initially as a transcription device. Rather than waiting for a secretary, business people could dictate material to be transcribed at any time.
Transcription remained largely a niche business practice through the 20th century. In the 1980s, the writer and editor Glenn O’Brien complained that the “mystique of writing keeps it doing jobs that could be done more effectively and efficiently by tape recording. Writers have been even more effective than the strongest labor unions in resisting automation.” O’Brien, who got his start at Interview magazine, was undoubtedly influenced by Andy Warhol’s collaboration with a Sony tape recorder. Warhol’s tape-recorded conversations, like his filmed screen tests, promised to present an unedited view of his subjects’ lives. Warhol’s novel, A, is composed entirely of tape-recordings and includes all of the typists’ errors in transcription. Here the “actual format” is an amalgamation of a speaker’s words with the typists’ labor.
Today the typist who speaking-writers collaborate with most often is Siri, or some other version of artificial intelligence. Richard Powers revealed in 2007 that he wrote entire books in bed, under the covers, by speaking into his laptop. Still, bringing walking and recording together posed a challenge: the technology was ungainly, imperfect. Early tape recorders were suitcase-sized. Even in the early 2000s, Powers’ transcription software was easily distracted by the sounds of the street when he tried to dictate outdoors.
Walking writers and artists often relied on an older, more portable technology to get their ideas down: the notebook. Leonardo tied his handmade notebooks to his belt, so that they were always on his person. Beethoven sketched out compositions in small notebooks while on his daily walks. Later in life, when his hearing deteriorated, these became conversation books—an analogue form of speech-to-text—where interlocutors could write down what they wished to say to him.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin recorded notes on pocket-sized ivory plates. After copying and expanding the ideas into paper journals at night, the plates were wiped clean and reused the next day. Mary Oliver wrote in a pocket notebook while rambling in the woods. Notebooks like Charles Darwin’s include not just writing per se, but also personal notes and shopping lists, reminders, calculations. Notebooks are the home of etcetera.
What’s behind the drive to write on the wing? Are these scribbled books, their blotchy pages and anxious orthography, trying to outpace forgetting? Or, are they a kind of internal relay, a way of talking to ourselves? As a character in an E.M. Forster novel wondered: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
In the ancient world, before the printing press and without ample paper for note-taking or even formal writing, the trained memory was of vital importance. Frances Yates explains the Greek practice of mnemotechnics by analogy:
The art of memory is like an inner writing. Those who know the letters of the alphabet can write down what is dictated to them and read out what they have written. Likewise those who have learned mnemonics can set in place what they have heard and deliver it from memory.
The ancient memory technique relied on an inner architecture, an imagined or remembered space, in which representative images or objects could be placed. These memorized images were then linked with the major parts of an argument. Walking through the space in the mind allowed a speaker to retrieve the steps of the argument in their planned order.
The Ad Herennium, an ancient text on rhetoric, describes the purpose of these memorized spaces: “the places are very much like wax tablets or papyrus, the images like the letters, the arrangement and disposition of the images like the script, and the delivery is like the reading.” Placing concepts on things found in the built environment allowed the speaker to retrieve them when passing through his memory palace. The orator walked through an architectural structure in the mind. As Yates says, we moderns have no memory. When I am walking, I reach for my phone in order to spill the contents of my mind, to wipe it white as ivory. Speaking and writing relieve the anxiety of having to remember. I can walk on, unburdened.
Why all this fear? Why do we have to get the words out? What would happen if we didn’t preserve them on paper, ivory, wax, magnetic tape, or silicon chips? Forgetting is a species of loss. When we forget, we lose track of meaning. When we are forgotten, we, ourselves, are lost. Zadie Smith notes in Intimations, her series of essays written during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic: “Talking to yourself can be useful. And writing means being overheard.” In this view, writing isn’t only for the long-distance future. Staying a thought, even for a minute, allows you to put it alongside others, to paste it into a collage of conversation.
With a little distance, I can overhear myself. In moments of pain or suffering, this distance is crucial. Writing sotto voce into my phone, like an incantation, requires my full concentration. It’s a spell to quiet the mind. It eliminates the middlemen: the inner voice and the inner critic. With a little distance, you can name the pain and look at it objectively, instead of just experiencing it. Talking to myself promised not only a comfort, but a cure. I could see myself as a character in the midst of a narrative. I could imagine an ending, a finish line, or I could place myself in a new plot. Talking to yourself allows you to listen and to talk back, to see it all as story rather than statement of immutable fact.