I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within. —Gustave Flaubert
You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work. —William Gibson
How I envy those for whom writing seems to come easily. Our friend Steven Augustine is a case in point: his ability to turn out elegant, witty, sardonic prose at will has me gnashing my teeth (what’s left of them) in frustration (of course, it’s entirely possible that I’m being presumptuous and that Steven has to undergo electro-convulsive shock therapy before he can even face a blank sheet of paper…but I don’t think so).
When it comes to writing, I’m a bleeder–I even re-write shopping lists in an attempt to make them more aesthetically ‘pleasing’.
I’ll never forget the expression of intense amusement on my wife’s face when she first encountered my rather peculiar pathology. We were sitting at a table outside a café in Valencia. “What are you doing?” she said. “Writing a postcard,” I replied. “No, you’re not: you’re writing on a napkin.” I explained that I wanted to ensure that the postcard was properly laid-out. “You mean you’re writing a first-draft of a postcard?” I admitted that I was, whereupon she patted my face affectionately, the way one does with a lovable but not very bright dog. It was the first of many such pats that she’s given me over the ensuing years.
Why do I agonise over such-like ephemera? I think it probably dates from my childhood. According to my mother, I taught myself to read and, in truth, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. Happily, I grew up in a bookish household: both my parents were avid readers with wide-ranging tastes and our home was filled with books. Setting aside the influences of genetics, upbringing and cultural milieu, it’s books that have, more than any other agency, made me the man I am.
As a small boy, I would climb into a giant eucalyptus tree that grew on our property, up to where the trunk divided into a number of massive limbs. There, in a configuration like an open hand, I would spend hours with books, living other lives in other times and places and dying deaths other than the one I’m owed.
To this day, the scent of eucalyptus oil will transport me back to my tree/study; to the endless play of sunlight and shadow, of birdsong and the rising and falling rustle of the long, slim grey-green leaves; to a time when the power of the written word obliterated whatever rough-formed ‘I’ existed; when the only ‘I’ was dictated by what ‘I’ was reading. ‘I’ was Allan Quatermain; ‘I’ was Huck Finn; ‘I’ was Brigadier Gerard. ‘I’ was an endless array of characters. Books were a magic carpet–a conveyance to anywhere and anytime: to some extent, they still are.
I suppose that this has left me, despite the inevitable accumulation of years worth of scepticism and the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of bad books read, with a reverence for the written word that might be exaggerated or misplaced (though I’m not convinced that it is). This, in turn, pretty much guarantees dissatisfaction with anything that I write.
After my recent accident, Reine and Kevin (I think) both suggested I try speech-recognition software and, in fact, both my sons have the latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking installed on their laptops and use it all the time.
So, I installed it and tried it out. I have to say, it is hugely impressive. After a (roughly) 30 minute ‘training’ session (wherein you read set texts to the software, which then ‘learns’ to understand your particular accent and speaking style), the speed and accuracy of Dragon is close enough to 100% as to make no difference.
‘Fantastic!’ you might think; and in a way, it is…but I’ve stopped using it. Not because of any Luddite tendencies but for the simple reason that it’s so easy.
Perhaps I’m being ridiculous (God knows that would be nothing new) but it struck me as being too easy: instead of measuring, weighing and testing every word, Dragon encourages a sort of incontinence and I’m convinced that this is inimical to good prose. As the old saying has it: easy writing makes for hard reading. I can’t help feeling that the kind of effortless facility offered by Dragon can only render my prose even less readable than it already is. So it’s back to bashing this stuff out on a keyboard.
Now…to paraphrase Donne:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered keyboards go.
…let’s have verse on books and writing.