In my editing life and in my online reading, more and more frequently I am coming across passages of creative writing — both fiction and non-fiction — that “sound” to me as though they have been dictated into digital voice recorders, transcribed (which the apps do for you, in part), and then edited (often minimally) before being released into the world.
Why do I get the sense that some creative prose I’m reading started in an oral format? In part it is the phrasing and vernacular, but particularly it is the way the material unfolds. When we speak, most of us tend to go in circles: repeating ourselves and coming at the same topic from different directions until we get the approach that suits us (and our content) best. Our thoughts are frequently unfinished because we forget what we’ve just said. With writing, we edit out half-formed attempts to say it properly, and only leave the most effective statements. Then we might fiddle with the wording a little or a lot before we move on to the next sentence. Or at least that’s how I do it. I think that when we are working on the page, we take more time to think about what we are saying before we put it down, much less before we put it out there.
Update: My new WattPad friend Maximilian Frick tells me:
“Here’s a great quote from James Joyce that you may or may not know: when informed by an interviewer that some of his contemporaries considered two books a year an average output, Joyce replied: ‘Yes, but how do they do it? They talk them into a typewriter. I feel quite capable of doing that if I wanted to do it. But what’s the use? It isn’t worth doing’.”
Half-finished thoughts, repetitions and other markers have made me suspicious that (for example), at least some of the hundreds of thousands of people (many in their teens) who are posting novels and short fiction on WattPad (and even releasing them as books on Amazon) are not actually “writing” them, as I think of writing. “Writing” to me means creating on a page. It is a different process than speaking thoughts into a recording device.
Please note that I have a friend who is blind who is writing a book by dictating it. (Go, George!) That is a different issue: he is writing in the only way he can, and I believe he approaches his recorded writing as I do the page — i.e. not in haste. But maybe he (and the guy who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) are some exceptions that prove the rule.
Also, I know that some people write “free fall” — as the thoughts occur to them — not erasing but continuing to write, as Natalie Goldberg suggests doing in Writing Down the Bones, but I would argue that stream-of-consciousness writing is different from stream-of-consciousness speaking, and furthermore that most of it isn’t publishable. Some people might say that they take a long time to consider before they put a sentence into a recorder, and that what I am really arguing against is stream-of-consciousness prosemaking, period. Maybe so.
The question is, does writing on a page and then editing the result lead to a different outcome than talking into a recorder and then transcribing and editing the result? I believe it does.
Does one approach lead to greater literary quality than another? I don’t know. But I think creative writing should be written. Unless you are physically incapable of it.
I remember reading that Barbara Cartland dictated all of her novels, but I don’t call what she did “creative writing.”
Maybe I’m just a snob. And old-fashioned. Maybe the new electronic era means that I should just get with the program. Maybe when young people today say they want to grow up to be writers, they are not necessarily thinking of confronting a blank page (in any form) ever.
I may change my thinking, as I often do, but for now at least, I don’t think that dictating and writing are the same thing. Do you?
Let me know your thoughts — in the poll, the comments section below, or both.
I might write an article about this. (Maybe I just have. Maybe I should attempt to dictate the next one. Maybe articles CAN be dictated. Oh, life is so confusing.)