I have adventures. Physical, metaphysical, ethereal. Some might call them an odyssey. I call them my Twenties. I am glad you are here.

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    Writing Through Many Hands

              On a balmy May afternoon, during finals week of my sophomore year of college, I was waiting for my scribe to arrive.  We had agreed to meet at 9AM sharp and work until I had finished my final paper for Latino Literature.  I had not begun to compose the paper physically, that’s not how I work.  However, I had carefully and exhaustively watched two seasons of George Lopez and more hours of Carlos Mencia’s stand up than any human should have to endure and placed these sitcoms within the critical context of Latino identity.  Episodes were earmarked, quotes were highlighted, and I was ready to extol the virtues of George Lopez’ inclusive sense of Latin identity and expose Mencia’s restrictive, derogatory, and sloppy manipulation of his culture.  My scribe, uncharacteristically, arrived an hour late, sheepishly mumbled his apologies and sat down at a computer, ready to take dictation from me.  In the middle of the third sentence, he croaked, “Hang on a minute Dave,” puked in a nearby trashcan and was ready to work for the rest of the afternoon.  That day, I dictated fifteen pages of text, start to finish, in exactly eight hours.  My scribe and I had developed a system over several occasions of working together: he knew my cadence and was able to match my speed perfectly.  I was never in the unfortunate position of having to think three steps ahead of him, or having to backtrack because of some miscommunication, as is often the case with speech recognition software.  I paid in cash for these services and that afternoon stands as one of my fondest memories of undergrad.

              This is how I write.  I find a friend or a casual acquaintance who is able to type quickly and understand my sometimes slurred or mumbled speech and pay them to transcribe my thoughts accurately and fluidly.  I have used speech recognition software before, but the accuracy of transcription, punctuation, and the difficulty of having to think so far in advance makes this technology difficult for me to use and ill-suited to creating lasting work.  I am able to type myself, but only using the index fingers of each hand and this is a horribly inaccurate, slow exercise.  Writing, for me, is a collaborative process, though not a collaboration.  The words that appear in any final paper, publication, or blog, are my own, even if they have been typed by fingers that are not attached to me.  This system was evolved from my public education days, in which my aid assumed a scribe role and took dictation from me.  I much prefer the freedom and final authority that comes with paying someone to perform this activity, because it ensures complete creative control and also solidifies the existence of a healthy incentive for my scribe to show up when he/she is told (or somewhere thereabouts).  My undergrad career in literature and philosophy involved a lot of reading and a lot of writing.  Final exams were always typed by students working in the Disability Support Office of Canisius College, my undergrad institution.  However, on particularly long projects or on those projects for which I felt a strong affinity, I made sure to hire someone I trusted implicitly to get the job done.

              This is an incredibly intimate relationship.  I have to trust the individual to copy my thoughts as I articulate them and to have the patience to read back dictated passages, sometimes several times.  Throughout this process, I have to mentally sift through the inaccuracies, repetitions, and rash generalizations that occur in my writing and distill some of my rambles into a cogent, engaging product.  This phase of writing makes me feel vulnerable and naked.  All of my shortcomings as a writer are present: my preferred phraseology, the abhorrent homogeny of my sentence structure, and my tendency to embrace verbose prose where simple clarity might be better suited to the task.  (See what I did there?)  I do not want the messy details of my process and those very shortcomings to become public knowledge.  I am not naïve enough to believe that even people who are aware that I use scribes think that the final product flows out of me perfectly on the first attempt.  I may spend ten minutes struggling to carefully compose that first engaging sentence, anecdote, or precise thesis on which the development of the work depends.  Beginnings are hard and without a solid foundation, I cannot move forward, whether the task is purely for pleasure or some perfunctory task for an exam. 

              Standardized tests which involve substantial writing sections are always stressful for me because the scribes are complete strangers and do not have the patience or familiarity with the process that my trusted stable of hands does.  The time constraints of the tests are difficult but my anxiety in these settings comes from my embarrassment over the process and a lack of trust in the aptitude of the scribes to transpose my thoughts in a way that allows me to establish a progressive rhythm.  Few things can throw me off more than building to a crescendo of thought only to be stopped in the middle and asked how to spell a word or if a punctuation mark is needed.  I always proof my spellings and punctuation and am glad to provide a scribe with that information, but not in the middle of an important train of thought.  I understand the need for “objectivity” in standardized tests and the worry that some exam facilitators might have if I used one of those pairs of hands to transcribe an essay question, insofar as the suspicion might be that the scribe is aiding me in the actual composition.  To answer that concern, I would only invite the supervision of a third member so that they can see the process and be assured that I take all precautions to maintain academic integrity at the highest level.

              To date, the largest and most exhausting manifestation of my system in an academic setting was the composition of my undergraduate senior thesis on the works of David Eggers and the themes of family and societal breakdown found therein.  This was a sixty page project, the writing of which took a few seasons to complete.  My scribe and I met at several libraries for hours on end, writing and rewriting the sections and adding more research as it came along until I finally accomplished what I had set out to do.  I vastly underestimated the complexity of the project, the amount of time the revisions would take, and the extent to which my mental fortitude would be able to keep me working.  It was the most intellectually exhausting experience of my life up to that point, but it did teach me some valuable lessons about the shortcomings of my process.  As much as I am aware that I am not capable of producing brilliant insights in one single outpouring of dictation, I acted under that assumption too often during the Eggers project.  I think that I was motivated by such a desire to get it done and slay the dragon that I rushed unnecessarily through some much needed preparation time.  I think on some level, it remains a mystery to me how others write, and while I am certain that they go through just as many mental revisions as I do, I think I am also trying to keep up with the imaginary wunderkind who can sit down and pound out 15 pages flawlessly in an afternoon.

              I have always suffered from romantic delusions about writing and writers.  Any one of us who engages in the craft of constructing narratives, whether analytical or creative, wishes to one day single-handedly discover that thing which will carve out his/her place in history and leave a revolutionary legacy for generations.  We wish to go into the study as mere mortals and emerge with a work that will proclaim us: genius.  This superheroic transformation does not exist and disregards the work of writing and the beauty that can be found at the last stages of exhaustion, right before a breakthrough occurs.  Writing is not a solitary act.  Whether one uses a scribe or puts pen to paper, forging the written word is an act of community, which invites the readers to become active participants in an ongoing dialogue in which there can never be a final or absolute conclusion. 

    (Fun Trivia: The first three adventures of Dave’s Cerebellum were written with my two index fingers, which explains both the initial appearance of several egregious typos and the significant delay in new uploads.  The remaining three were typed by the most stalwart of my “employees”.)


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