CONVERSATIONS

Love and Other Challenges

Reading and Writing

Michael: When I was at your place six or seven years ago, you showed me a device that helped you read. It was a small video camera that you could lay on top of a printed page, and the words would show up much bigger on your computer screen. When I was there more recently, your computer was talking to you out loud, reading the text of an article you were writing‹albeit in a monotonous, staccato voice. I assume the shift in technologies reflects both your changing needs and the evolving state of the art of reading aids.

Joel: The device you remember was a closed circuit TV reading system (CCTV). Some CCTV's use your computer's screen for display, but most have their own monitors, mounted above a movable reading table on which the camera lens is focused. This is the type I have now. I use it mostly for examining bills, reading snail mail, and CD liner notes. At first, I used a CCTV to read entire books, but now the glare (unnoticeable to normal eyes) and the extreme magnification needed to keep print from looking as if it's been chewed up by insects makes this impossible.

The talking computer trick is done with a text-to-speech system, a screen reader. Mine is called Jaws for Windows, from the Henter-Joyce Company. Jaws lets me perform all computer tasks, including e-mail and Web surfing. The technology emerged in the days of the text-based DOS operating system. Later, developers had to scramble to adapt the concept to the graphical interface of a Windows or MAC display, find menu alternatives to the icons and keyboard equivalents to mouse commands. Despite the robot-like synthesized voice and, more importantly, the profound adjustments required for reading and especially for writing by ear, I love this thing, and can't imagine life without it.

Michael: Can you say a bit about your difficulties adjusting to the screen reader? I'm so accustomed to hearing my own little inner voice when I read; I get impatient even with a good actor reading, say, a short story on the radio. It must be tough hearing that machine voice droning away at you for long stretches.

Joel: I've accustomed myself to the synthetic voice, despite the undeniable annoyance. Still, listening to its unreal, grating diction and timbre all day is stressful and ultimately exhausting. At the philosophical level, I'm okay with it. After all, I need it. But listening to the voice hour after hour simply wears me down. I take a lot of breaks to get away from it, in the midst of working. Play guitar. Cook a pot of black beans for lunch. Fold laundry. Listen to NPR or talking books. The real problem, ultimately, is the way working by ear distorts the mental processes of reading and writing.

Michael: So it's not just the voice itself, but the fact of working that way, without using your eyes to scan the words on the page, that makes reading and writing difficult?

Joel: Like a child, I appreciate being read to, even by a computer with a voice like your worst dystopian nightmare. The problem is that I can't scan backward and forward visually to check details, to maintain a sense of context, and to enjoy optimal recall when that text, vocalized, is in the air and gone, to paraphrase Eric Dolphy's remark on the ephemerality of music. Writing is really a challenge. Monitoring the flow of thought, the coherent use of imagery, the rhythm and melody of the language. I used to observe as I typed, correcting course instantaneously, doubling-back to tweak something and then plunging forward again. And knowing that even the most sprawling first draft could always be inspected later, visually, to see the sculpture leap out from within the superfluous stone. Now I have to plan meticulously, holding a kind of sketch in my mind, filling it in as I go, and committing each particle of thought and language to memory.

Michael: In what ways do you think this new method of working affects the finished product, the final draft of a piece of writing?

Joel: Writing without being able to see the words I type can yield unexpectedly good results or produce horribly dull, pointless prose. At best, I may wind up with an essay or story in which every word, image, and thought seems inevitable, and the overall effect coherent and convincing, even moving. But all too often, what I get is something very stiff, and a little bit off, like someone who shows up at a rave in an ill-fitting tuxedo. At which point, regardless of how much concentration and time I've already expended, I've achieved nothing more than a first draft.
Michael: In the past couple years you've written some longish articles, and I know you've recently been working on some fiction. Have you ever gotten to a point in a piece of writing ("by ear") where you start to get lost because you can't hold enough of it in memory?
Joel: My memory is challenged at every stage of composition. I hold what Ive written in my mind as I go, continually back-tracking to have the computer recite the last bit to me again, or everything from the beginning. Over and over. Only by constant review can I know if my words make sense at all, let alone whether they attain anything beyond that. Then I push forward a little more, hoping fervently not to overshoot the limits of retention and create too unwieldy a mess to revise. I wish my best thoughts came to me in declarative journalistic sentences and orderly, utilitarian paragraphs, or even in the terse staccato outbursts of David Mamet's dialogue, and so were easier to manage. But they mostly don't. It¹s a very labor-intensive process, as they say.
Michael: On the other hand (to put a Polyanna spin on it), what you do now is closer to oral tradition, and (for instance) to Homer, who was blind. I know the process is tremendously difficult, but have you occasionally discovered some real advantage to relying so heavily on your ear and memory?
Joel: Composing by ear and memory can yield prose as smooth, hard, and inevitable in every detail as a well-cut diamond. But the cost in stress is high. Using that method to write an essay of a thousand or so words, not to mention a short story five or six times longer, is tedious and frustrating. First drafts are especially difficult, because the freer I've been in letting those initial thoughts flow, the harder it is to discover, by repeated listenings, what it was I really meant to say, and how I should have said it. And what I write, unlike ancient legends, archaic poetry, or a Stevie Wonder song, follows no conventionalized template of stanzas, rhythm, rhyme, and repetition that would prevent me from getting lost or tripping over the tangled thread of my own ideas. But when it works, I'm really proud of what I've accomplished.

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