Unit of resistance
There’s something to be said for making the act of writing difficult.
At the time when I started writing commentaries regularly for Vermont Public Radio, in addition to editing a magazine and teaching at the university, my life was so hectic that the only time I had to write was when I was driving.
Twice a month I’d drive from my home in Burlington 100 miles down to the VPR recording studio in Windsor, knowing that if I didn’t come up with some fresh ideas in those four hours on the road, the chances were that I’d start falling behind.
I soon discovered that there’s nothing more valuable than thinking in essays but not being able to write them. Ideas and phrases go round and round in your head like laundry, until all the dirt and the sweat and the stiffness has been beaten out of them and you can pull them out, fresh and supple, and fold them onto the page.
But writing involves both thinking and recording, and I kept finding that by the time I got to Windsor, half my good ideas had been washed out. So one day, while heading down Interstate 89 at 85 mph–sorry, officer, 65 mph–I felt around the floor of the car for a pencil and an envelope and started making notes.
The great advantage of this method was that what with bends and passing cars it was well-nigh impossible to write more than half a dozen words at a time, though I suppose in Kansas you could write whole novels. If I tried writing more than one line I either started writing over what I’d already written–a far more effective way of obliterating it than crossing it out, by the way–or found myself swerving to avoid running into a thirty-foot face of blasted rock.
The unit of resistance, then–the ohm of writing™–enforced a very high thinking-to-recording ratio: at the end of the trip I’d have no more than a couple of dozen well-considered phrases, each of which would have an almost poetic quality because of the degree of compression of thought involved.
Some of my best commentaries were written this way. Knowing I couldn’t write out complete sentences also made me consider the subject as a whole rather than plodding through the specific train of thought, which in turn meant that I wasn’t as likely to get seduced by the momentum of my own syntax.
While I was captivated by the physics of this theory, of course, my then-wife recognized it as suicidal lunacy. She handed me an office products catalog, open at a display of dictaphones.
“Pick one,” she said. “I’ll pay for it.”
The result, though well-intentioned, was unmitigated drivel. At first, the dictaphone seemed both secret and potent, a dashing combination of introspection and action, and under its influence I completely forgot how to write. I would ponder for about ten seconds, dictate a sentence, ponder for another ten seconds, dictate another sentence and all the time, like some Chamber of Commerce nitwit cheerleader, I was thinking, “Productivity is up, up, up! More is being achieved in less time with less work!”
It was surely a miracle, a revolutionary moment in the history of writing. Soon Japanese Public Radio would be sending teams of observers over to see how they could write their commentaries more efficiently. It was just a question of time before I hired a secretary so I could arrive back in Burlington, flip her the cassette, and say, “Transcribe this, Miss Palooka: three for VPR, one for NPR, one for the BBC and one for the archives at the Smithsonian.” She’d bat her eyelashes at me and purr “Oh, Mr. Brookes, you’re so prolific.”
The reverse was true. On the one occasion when I thought I’d dictated two whole commentaries on the way south, I realized afterwards that the first was utterly trivial, and in the second I had gone galloping off astride a false premise, so intoxicated by the thunder of my own prose that I never stopped to realize that what I was saying was complete garbage. In making the process of recording so smooth–reducing the ohmage of writing–I had virtually guaranteed the lowest possible thought-to-recording ratio—namely, 1:1.
I had created a technique that would ensure that my reflections contained no reflection whatever. Worse, essays are like journeys by steam train: you expend so much mental energy huffing through the landscape of your subject that in the end you let out a loud and prolonged sigh, and the urge you once had to think along those lines is now exhausted. Your mind just wants to have a cup of tea and put its feet up. In the pre-dictaphone days, I had arrived home with my orphan fragments and envelope phrases demanding to be typed into shape before I lost the envelope or couldn’t read my own writing—an exciting creative challenge. When I composed an essay on tape, on the other hand, its fire went out, and transcribing it was just a drag.
So I’ve gone back to writing on envelopes and post-its. If I have to die for my art, so be it. In the interest of public safety, though, the least I can do is tell you my license plate number: 8L424. If you’re driving the Interstate and you see me, pull over. I may just be listening to the radio, but it’s better to be safe.
First broadcast on Vermont Public Radio around 1991.