The newest item on the list of strange things I’ve tried in order to get writing? Recording my own voice on my portable cassette player. The idea behind this experiment was to get a more extemporaneous, in-the-moment record of the particular thoughts I was having that night rather than sifting through ideas in my head until one or two of them seemed interesting enough to write down. I was partly inspired by the stereotypical movie portrayals of novelists pacing around the house in the throes of inspiration, microcasette recorder in hand, and I wanted to see how this actually felt. Also, having been a child in the 1990s, I grew up goofing around with tape recorders and relished the excuse to get my mischievous paws on one again.
I’m still a little afraid to go back and listen to it, but the act of doing the exercise has given me some insights to my own writing process that I thought worth sharing.
I’ve heard many other writers talk about how the phenomenology of different methods of writing can have a profound effect on the finished product. For example, the way writing on a smaller pad of paper will likely result in shorter lines. Personally, I have always begun writing poetry by hand and transitioned to a word processor at some point in order to play with line breaks and spacing. This works well when I’m feeling good about writing or working on a deadline, but when I’m not feeling so good about writing, it can seem like none of the thoughts running through my head are worth putting down on the page. Hence, the tape recorder. The loophole here is that I could sit silent rather than speaking everything that comes to mind, but I think automatic speaking comes a bit quicker (to me, anyway) than automatic writing. So I put on some chill music and hit Record.
What I found most liberating about the exercise was that it didn’t matter how striking my images were or how crisp my language was; the words we speak out loud (usually in conversation with others) have a way different feel than the words we write down taking notes or composing an email, blog post, short story, poem, what have you. (This might be why writing dialogue can be so tricky.) I felt like the point of what I was trying to get across and the connections between major ideas became more important than the particulars, which are often what bog me down. Writing this very blog post I got sidetracked looking for stills of John Cusack using a voice recorder in 1408 instead of actually writing. I gave up writing fiction for a long time because I’d go down rabbit holes researching the geography of other cities or naming my characters. The reader doesn’t care so much about these things; they want you to get to the point. In that way, the tape recorder became my proxy for an imagined reader. I was able to get to the point first and worry about details later in a much more intuitive way than trying to bridge the gap between the fantastic ideas floating around in the ether and the cold, literal black and white contrast of the page.
I can think of a few other ways to use the tape recorder, for example, when trying to achieve a realistic spoken conversation in a dialogue poem. David Antin in particular captured this kind of spontaneity in his Speaking poems. I haven’t written any spoken word pieces, but I know spoken word poets who get some of their best lines from freestyling. In a slightly different vein, many prose writers read their work aloud to “hear” sentence-level mistakes and awkwardness. Poets who write with close attention to musicality or sonic effects might also benefit from hearing their own voice during the writing process, rather than drafts later.
I think I will likely continue recording short blurbs a few minutes at a time and then go back and listen to them once I’ve filled up one side of the tape. If I can get over the awful weirdness of listening to my own voice, I may decide to incorporate this into my regular writing routine. For now it will remain an experiment.