I dropped my cellphone in the toilet the other night. After I retrieved it, it flickered briefly and then sputtered to what seemed like a rather unsurprising death. The screen went black, and the keys oozed water when I pressed them. I popped the battery out later and spread the phone in front of a dehumidifier we recently bought because of our warped hardwood floor. Yesterday, when I pressed the “on” button, the keypad lights brightened to a dull blue behind the panel. The phone was not dead, just comatose. I set it on the window sill in bright sun to warm it and dry it out more.
Later, encouraged by the return of the photo of my dog on the screen, I charged the phone. (I backed away even as I plugged it in, visions of my waterlogged phone giving me an electric shock.) Now, all seems to be well with my poor phone. The screen has returned, the buttons work, and I can scroll through my contacts. Except. Except that when I make a call, my phone connects, but I can’t hear anything. And when my phone gets an incoming call, the call registers on the screen, but … nothing. Silence.
In a way the silence is fitting, or at least metaphorical. I’m supposed to be taking a break from writing, which is in itself a kind of silence. Even these few paragraphs are aggravating my arm. My physical therapist has begun kneading at mysterious spots on my neck and shoulder that are knotted tight, the result of favoring my forearm, or perhaps my ill-fitting office chair, or perhaps my posture. It doesn’t matter: I am supposed to take a break. Stop typing. Stop writing. Stop gripping pencils. Except. Except that there are words, piling up in my brain, waiting for their turn, for release, whatever you want to call it. I can last a few days, without writing, and then I want to get them down. I imagine a cartoon: A steep hill, with a brick wall at the end of it, black typeface sliding down as if on sleds, then smack, into the wall, again and again, words upon words upon words, until the screen goes black with all that’s unwritten, piled behind the wall in my head.
I’ll admit to not liking my cell phone. Perhaps it was a subconscious attempt to sabotage the thing, dropping it like that, right into the toilet. I’ll admit that I covet an iPhone. In fact, the first thing I thought (in half-seriousness) when I retrieved my phone from the toilet was, “Maybe it won’t work, and I’ll have to get an iPhone. Darn.” Then I remembered hearing about a friend who’d washed her cell phone with the laundry, and how it came back, after a few days of drying out. I sighed and saw myself laying out the metal pieces on my sunny windowsill. It’ll come back, I thought.
Something about my phone’s silence is pushing at me though, making my forced break from writing unenforcible. I can’t help but notice the parallel silences, however overdramatic that may seem. Billy is away for the weekend, an occasion that would normally have me typing away, no distractions, no interruptions (except the dog, patiently waiting for his walks). Without being able to write I’ve been rattling around the house, wondering what it is that I am supposed to do when I am not writing. It’s not as though I have been exactly diligent about writing for the last few months, but suddenly I am conscious of the choice that isn’t really a choice: I can’t write this afternoon, so I will ____. I’m not going to be writing, so I’ll have time to ___. I made grand plans for my time spent not writing. I tried to prepare myself, to accomplish tasks that normally might prevent me from getting writing done. But instead mostly I sat under a warm sun on the deck with my feet up, drinking coffee, and read Best American Essays 2007, which only made me want to write even more.
When I get frustrated with these typing limits, I start considering my options. I can be patient, I think, just wait, hold out for when my arm regains strength and the inflammation goes away. I might have to wait months to be able to write without my arm flaring up, perhaps longer. I could try to write by hand, I think, but I know that this isn’t a serious option, either, as my arm hurts if I hold a pen to write too much, and besides, I have never been a hand-write sort of writer, anyway. And then there’s voice recognition software, which I have been telling myself steadily that I don’t want to buy. I tell myself that speaking isn’t the same as writing, that there’s something fundamentally different about those two processes. That it won’t be writing if I’m speaking.
I recently read The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 2006. I heard an interview with Powers in which he said that he’d used voice recognition software to write the book. He didn’t say why, whether he, too, has tendinitis in his arm, or carpal tunnel syndrome or what, but after reading the book, which is bursting with explorations of consciousness and full of characters who cannot recognize themselves, I suspect him of using the software as an experiment, to see whether the brain writes the same silently as it does out loud. In the interview he says:
Typing and speaking are two completely different neurological activities. … We put a tremendous amount of effort into learning how to compose and type at the same time. It’s a highly artificial interface. It’s like a dog walking on its hind legs.
I have been thinking about the term “voice recognition,” and how as a writing student you are always told to “find” your voice. I’ve been thinking about the “highly artificial interface” that I feel so compelled to participate in, and yet because it’s so artificial, has damaged my arm. I have been thinking about self-recognition, and how Powers’ characters had to recognize each other in order to be able to recognize themselves. I’ve been wondering if there’s a difference between your voice and your self. Or maybe I’ve been wondering whether there’s a difference between a writer’s voice and a writer’s self.
On February 15, new voice recognition software becomes available for Macs. I’m waiting for it. Maybe my arm will be better by then. Maybe not. Today I will go to see what I can do about my cell phone. Probably I will take the cheapest option, a comparable replacement phone, or perhaps repair to my current phone. I just need to be able to make calls, to be able to make my voice heard.