Voice Recognition Software and Writing Voice

Like many people who write for a living, in the last few months I’ve come up against a wall. Not writer’s block; my brain is chugging along just fine. No, the wall is a purely physical one: Years of typing, years of writing tens of thousands of words every week, has caused a repetitive stress injury. It started in my wrists and hands, which coiled into gnarled claws every morning, so much so that sometimes I couldn’t fully straighten my fingers for 20 minutes or more, and it crept up my right arm and into my rotator cuff, which has turned into my own personal ring of fire.

I wasn’t necessarily responsible about working ergonomically for many years, and as I made adjustments to my working habits, I also started working much more, which seemed to balance things out. I might have been working better, but I was also working harder, so my hands didn’t thank me for it. I can’t stop writing; not just in the sense that it’s what I do for a living and I need to eat, but also because it’s important to me, and it’s not something that I could live without. This, of course, forces me to consider alternatives. How can you write when you can’t write?

The obvious solution is voice recognition software, which I’ve been experimenting with, and ultimately struggling with. Justine Larbalestier wrote about this subject and the way that the software changed her writing voice:

This software does not learn. Instead it tries to school me. I have had to change the way I speak so it can understand me. Slower, with more precise diction, like I am impersonating a robot. I do not feel like myself when I use it.

I’ve been experiencing the same problem. Speaking in neutral, slow tones isn’t the way I express myself and I do feel very robotic when I try to dictate. It also changes my sentences, which as we know tend to be wandery and flowery, with lots of excess punctuation. Dictation software clips my sentences, because it cannot understand complex ones. Friends say they can always tell when I dictate my email because it turns into a series of short, sharp, crisp sentences. Aside from the issue that the software often doesn’t understand me, doesn’t know the words I know, it changes the way I write, forcing me to muffle my voice in order to get the words out at all.

And dictation is also just not how I work. I’m not an oral communicator, I have trouble gathering and expressing my thoughts orally. I can dictate in short bursts, as ideas explode into my head, but then I freeze up. I want my hands on the keyboard, which is so much a part of the process, for me. I want to feel the keys clacking under my fingers as I think about the way I want to express something. I want to type sentences out and then delete them, to skip back over words to fix one that doesn’t work for me, I want to see words slowly seeping across the page. Dictating makes me feel stiff and alien, and my writing is, simply, not as good.

I’m not using dictation software right now. If I had, this would have taken three times as long and it would have been half as good. So I type, even though I feel the tingling in my arm as I do it, the twinge that spreads across my shoulder, the dull ache in my lower right arm. I know that what I am doing is bad for me, but I cannot stop, and I cannot seem to find an alternative.

There’s a long tradition of suffering for art, often wrapped up in some very romantic ideas about artists injuring themselves for the sake of beauty. I don’t really buy into that; I don’t think that suffering makes art better, or that people should be driven to destroy themselves to create things of beauty, or functionality, or anything else, for other people. Despite my beliefs, though, I find myself trapped in this tradition, of injuring myself for other people (though of course ultimately the core of writing is for the writer, an imperative, to stop writing is to die). I don’t know how many more years my arms will last, before I finally really do become incapable of writing because they’re so painful and my fingers are so dysfunctional.

I think, too, about how many artists who suffered for the sake of creation died alone and in obscurity. Once they were no longer able to create, they fell out of the public eye and lived in poverty. We don’t even know where some of them were buried. They were useful as long as they were producing, and kept producing even though it hurt because they had that internal drive to, and needed to, in order to survive, only to find that survival wasn’t actually guaranteed. I wonder, when I am finally unable to pick a keyboard, if I will be able to train myself to use dictation software even though it feels so very stiff and awkward and wrong, or if perhaps technology will have progressed to the point that some better alternative would be available.

Even if the technology is available, I wonder how it will change my writing voice, how the loss of my hands would also take my voice away, and what that might mean or look like, precisely. When we talk about means and ways of communication, this is what comes to mind to me, more and more, as I attempt to coax my hands into uncurling for one more morning, just one more day, just one more essay, just a little bit further, and wait with dread for the day that I wake up and they are frozen despite all my pleas.