The toughest part about taking school examinations for me has always been the writing. I have never learnt to write efficiently with the pen, gripping it too hard till my knuckles go white. I’m probably holding it the wrong way too, seeing as a fleshy lump of a callous has developed on my middle finger over the years.
Economics was the worst subject, the examination format consisting of four essay questions to be completed in a span of three hours. It was non-stop writing, I didn’t even have time to think or take a bathroom break.
Typing was much easier. While in university, I picked up a touch typing course on a CD for just £10. It didn’t take me too long to pick up the basics, maybe around two weeks before the motions felt natural to me and I could type without glancing down at the keyboard. My little fingers were particularly weak, I couldn’t imagine how anyone could type on a real typewriter.
On a keyboard, typing a 15,000 word essay was more relaxing than writing a 3000 word passage by hand. Unfortunately, typing isn’t allowed in the examination halls.
So I was relieved on graduation day, filled with glee that I never have to write another essay again.
Voice dictation is just as much a leap over typing, as typing was over pen and paper. There are some practical limitations, of course. For one, you need a quiet environment which rules this out of most offices and cafes. Can you imagine a room full of people all narrating into their microphones? It would sound exactly like a call centre, and productivity and morale would take a nosedive.
Voice dictation is most suited to people working from home. I’m lucky to have a quiet space where I could work in peace. My brain also seems to kick into higher gear after midnight when the world is at peace (unfortunately, my wife would be unable to sleep despite wearing her ear plugs).
On the occasions I was banished to the living room, the accuracy rate plummeted significantly. I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having a quiet space. A little quirk I’ve noticed is that the Dragon NaturallySpeaking software takes much longer to process in a noisy environment, probably needing the extra time to filter out the extraneous background noise. Its speed gradually improves, suggesting that Dragon NaturallySpeaking is actively learning and adapting to its environment.
Recently I’ve been seeking inspiration for writing from a book titled “Writing down the Bones “. In it, the author shared her intimate experiences of writing and also some practical tips for when we are at a loss for words. One of the exercises is to develop the habit of simply writing whatever comes to mind. A typical writing routine is to put down at least 1000 words daily. It doesn’t really matter exactly what I’m writing, as long as I am writing.
This simple act of writing helps to overcome the natural inertia at the start of every activity, or if extended over a period of time, a bout of writer’s block. Professional writers could do anywhere upwards of 2000 words a day.
That sounded really exhausting to me.
Incredibly, this task is so much easier to complete when I am dictating. For example, I have already written for short articles tonight with a combined total word count of nearly 2000 words. This level of productivity is unprecedented for me.
Do you remember a book called “The Butterfly and the Diving Bell”? It was written by the former editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine. In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was struck down in the prime of his career by a severe medical condition known as “locked in syndrome”. He lost almost all capacity to move, reduced to only blinking his left eye.
Despite this tragic setback, Jean-Dominique Bauby was able to author an entire book, with the assistance of his secretary, simply through the movements of his eyelid. I vividly recall reading a passage in the book where he described his writing process. The secretary would narrate each letter of the alphabet until she uttered the one he wanted, and that he would blink to select it.
It was slow, tedious, and exhausting for everyone. The cost of making a mistake is high, so he would mull over each sentence in his mind carefully before she comes in for the session each day.
He used the beautiful eponymous metaphors for his flights of imagination while trapped within the useless shell of his body. I shouldn’t really complain when I have this amazing arsenal of technological tools available at my fingertips, and at the tip of my tongue too.
When I was young, my father would always ask me to compare myself to someone better than me so that I could continue to improve. I know his intentions are kind, but sometimes, I can help but feel that this is a recipe for unhappiness. On the other hand, it felt somewhat macabre to compare oneself with someone such as Jean-Dominique Bauby who has suffered such a painful fate, that it almost feels like I’m taking advantage of his unfortunate circumstances somehow.
But when the vagaries and randomness of the world are thrown up in such stark relief, it is a timely reminder to ourselves that if we look hard enough, we can always find some blessings to count.