Over the years, I’ve had sporadic periods of numbness and strain in my hands, wrists, and arms. But the discomfort always went away soon without any particular effort on my part. Last week, however, a sharper, more persistant pain began in my wrists. Sometimes my hands feel as though they’re cramping, and sometimes the pain shoots up into my elbows. I wonder a little if I’m overreacting, but I was caught off guard by how fast a little tiredness turned into pain. Anyway, it couldn’t come at a more inconvenient time, since I’m in the midst of National Novel Writing Month.
After researching ways to prevent this pain from becoming something more serious, I realized that I haven’t really been taking very good care of myself when it comes to computer-related tasks. I thought I was doing pretty well to have an ergonomic keyboard, but I was resting my wrists on the pad while typing. It’s called a wrist rest, who knew you weren’t actually supposed to use it? And I bought a new wrist rest for my mouse not too long ago, thinking that was going to be good for me. But my right hand definitely hurts more than my left as a result of the crazy angle I bent my wrist into while surfing the web.
My worst habit was unfortunately one that I was most proud of. I wrote a while ago about how much more productive I am when I write on a laptop that’s not connected to the internet. But I was in the habit of sitting with the laptop in my lap, my wrists and elbows awkwardly bent. So now I’ve been doing all my writing, including my novel, on my main computer with its dreaded internet connection. JDarkRoom has been essential to maintaining my focus.
Not only have I been trying to be smarter in the ways I use my keyboard, but I’m paying more attention to how I use my hands for other tasks too. For instance, I’ve noticed that I often bend my hands at awkward angles when I’m driving, as well as when I’m holding books up to read. I’m continually reminding myself to straighten out my wrists.
It’s easier for me to remember to take breaks from the computer. Luciano reminded me of Workrave, a program for Windows or Linux that flashes reminders to take breaks at various intervals. It even shows stretching exercises to reduce strain. I remember getting irritated with the program the last time I tried to use it, but I wasn’t taking the concept of preventing injury as seriously as I am now. I used Workrave all day yesterday, and I think I’m getting the settings tweaked to where it’s useful rather than annoying.
In an effort to simply type less, I just ordered the voice recognition software Dragon NaturallySpeaking from Amazon.com. When it arrives, I will attempt to write my novel, and hopefully many other works of fiction and nonfiction, by dicatation.
I chose Dragon because it is consistently referred to as the best voice recognition software available. The Preferred edition will allow me to dictate into a separate recorder, then upload the file into the software, whereas the Standard version only takes dictation in real time directly through the microphone. Also, the Preferred edition works in Ubuntu, my preferred operating system. The reviews on Amazon are generally positive. Nevertheless, it took me a long time to decide to order the software.
I’m not afraid that the software won’t perform as expected. Rather, I’m afraid that I won’t perform as expected. I’m afraid I won’t actually be able to write fiction by talking it out. As part of my research, I did all the reading I could on other writers’ experiences with dictating fiction. This writer especially makes me nervous when he talks about his attempts to write fiction using
Dragon speech recognition software:
“I haven’t actually read all of the text yet but my impression of the resulting story is that it is rather mundane. The kind of thinking I do while typing tends to be more introspective whereas the kind of thinking I do when I’m talking tends to be descriptive . . .”
(Update: Donavan says in the comments that his speech recognition software is now working well for him on his NaNoWriMo novel.)
I’m afraid that introspection while typing is too important a part of my writing process and that anything I produce while dictating won’t just be rough, it will be lifeless. School for Champions warns that, “It may not be that easy for a visual thinker to write by dictation, although it might be worth a try.” I am definitely a visual thinker. And David Ulin of the Village Voice writes:
“The trouble with dictation, I came to understand, had to do with the dichotomy between spoken and written speech, the way that, by its nature, talk is loose and formless, while writing cannot help but be more controlled. Even the most natural writer has two distinct voices, one for conversation and one for the page.”
Ulin’s article was written in 1999, and undoubtedly some of his difficulties with the software will not be a problem with the more advanced version I bought. But still, there’s the question of the quality of what I’ll be saying, not just the quality of what the software transcribes.
Other writers though, have had better luck. This writer talks about how she trained herself to write out loud. And she was using Version 3 of the software. From everything I’ve read, Version 9 is light years beyond the older editions. The Elegant Variation blog quotes Richard Powers on using voice recognition software to write:
“I’ve always wanted the freedom to be completely disembodied when I’m writing, to feel as if I’m in a pure compositional state. Typing is a highly unnatural activity, and your writing style ends up reflecting the cognitive shackles.”
I’m also encouraged by an interview, posted just today, with NaNoWriMo participant Janine Goodwin on using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. So maybe there’s hope after all. Maybe learning to dictate my writing will be an enlightening, enlarging experience.
Or at least it might be as long as I don’t get carried away. Writer Deanna Carlyle’s experience with Dragon is a hilarious story of how not to use the software. Definitely worth a read if you need a laugh.
So I’m trying to approach writing with Dragon as an adventure. If it works well for me, it could speed up my writing considerably, not to mention giving me some physical relief. I’ll write about how the software works for me once I’ve had a chance to use it a little.
When I first realized this pain wasn’t just going to go away overnight, I panicked a little at the idea that I might not be able to write anymore. But I’m encouraged by the number of options I have to adopt better computer habits. I’m certainly not ready to give up on writing. After all, I still have 17 days left before NaNoWriMo is over. One way or another, I’m going to keep writing.