The High & the Low

Say What?

Learning to write with your arm in a sling

Illustration: Illustration by Michael Witte

I have made my living as a writer for more than thirty years, and in all that time, the comment I’ve gotten most is “You write just like you talk.” I choose to take this as a compliment, to believe that what people mean is that I sound (dare I say it) authentic and relatively accessible without too many airs. This is what you strive for, what is called in the trade a “voice,” a slightly heightened version of your actual self. Once, early on, when I was trying perhaps too hard to adhere to the old-fashioned newsman rule of “who, what, when, where, and why” (which never, ever, involved the first person), an editor scrawled in the margins of my story, “Where are YOU??” These days one might well make the case that I am all too present in my prose. But there is one thing I now know for sure. I might have a voice, but I do not write like I talk.

I made this discovery in September, when I broke my left elbow while crossing one of New Orleans’ typically mean streets. The first (not so hot) doctor set my arm in a hard cast for several weeks, a course of action that turned out to be entirely unnecessary or just flat-out wrong, depending on whom you talk to. Worse, my palm was facing up so that I looked like a perpetual waitress, albeit one no good for passing anything other than a very small plate of airy hors d’oeuvres. You’d be amazed at what you need two arms (and hands) for. At one point, on a visit to New York, I had to ask the startled night porter at the University Club to unzip me. What neither the porter nor anyone else could do for me was my job, though almost to a man, everybody I encountered cheerfully insisted that I was lucky, that today’s smart technology would see me through. “Don’t worry,” they said. “That’s what your dictation app is for. It won’t be a problem.”

It was a problem. First of all, like the iPhone’s highly temperamental Siri, Dragon and the rest of the dictation apps I tried steadfastly refused to understand pretty much everything I had to say. Dragon’s trademarked slogan is “NaturallySpeaking,” but apparently none of its coders have spent a natural minute below the Mason-Dixon Line. A smart person could make a lot of money by inventing a Siri for Southerners (and maybe for French folks too). Each time I sent an e-mail asking someone to meet me at Cochon, one of my favorite local restaurants, it came out “kosher,” a supremely ironic substitution considering that Cochon, as the name implies, is a shrine to slaughtered pig meat. When my friend the artist Bill Dunlap dictates an e-mail to me, it invariably begins, “Dear Junior.” Now he calls me Junior all the time, and it’s funny. What is not funny is the fact that the only words my computer unfailingly recognized were the epithets I hurled at its screen, where whole lines of them would dutifully appear. Which meant that I’d have to use my good hand to erase them and start all over again.

All that cussing and deleting and stopping and starting can really slow down, if not entirely derail, a train of thought. But even on the rare occasions when things would go smoothly for a whole paragraph at a time, I finally realized it was no good. I couldn’t even blame the technology. While I’d have appreciated better cooperation on those e-mails, it turns out that I cannot talk a story. Dictation is better suited for the “just the facts, ma’am” lingo of lawyers and doctors, for whom Dragon was developed. I once threw an orange at my husband for using “pretermit” in normal conversation. Clearly he had been dictating too many lawyerly documents for too long. My own so-called voice is not my literal voice, which is a result of lungs and larynx and all manner of other speech organs working together to enable a sound to make contact. It is a rather more hard-won thing that comes, finally, from putting pen to paper or fingers to keys.

When we talk, we rarely edit ourselves, as anyone (which is to say everyone) who has ever regretted a word that flew out of his or her mouth knows. We tend, as well, to drone on, especially in the South, a place famous for what scholars like to call our “oral tradition.” Loosely translated, this means that we are prone to drink a lot of whiskey and spin a lot of yarns. And since we started out in a rural, mostly agricultural place, no one had anything better to do than gather round and listen. I’ve done plenty of this myself, usually in bars rather than on the fabled front porch. I once spent almost seven hours with Dunlap, who also happens to be a good writer, in Galatoire’s. We consumed at least a case of wine and carried on what we persisted in thinking was the kind of conversation that would solve everything, the kind that Hemingway (who was drunk himself a whole lot of the time) would rather pompously describe as “true.” Of course, neither of us could remember a shred of it the next day. The thing about the oral tradition is that it’s mostly enjoyable for the talkers. And it helps if everyone within hearing distance is drunk, too. (Hemingway also said, “I drink to make other people more interesting.”) With few exceptions (Winston Churchill, William F. Buckley, Jr., my old pal Christopher Hitchens), most of us don’t talk remotely as agilely or as thoughtfully as we write. Even Jerry Clower did not just get on the radio or TV and yack. He wrote all that seemingly off-the-cuff cornpone humor down first.

With that, I shall write down my own story. Mainly so I won’t have to keep answering the question “How drunk were you?” This is closely followed by “How bad did you hurt him?” (My acquaintances imagine themselves to be at least as amusing as Clower himself.) First, I was not drunk and I didn’t hit anybody, though I really, really wanted to. It was morning, I’d been working, I was taking my dog, Henry, out for what I thought would be a quick walk. But then we ran into the cemetery tourists. I live across from Lafayette No. 1, a bedraggled, constantly crumbling aboveground graveyard that out-of-towners cannot seem to get enough of. Despite all the post-Katrina hoopla about New Orleans’ newly diversified economy, it remains largely tourist based, so we’re exhorted to be pleasant to our visitors. I try mightily, but on this particular morning an irritating couple waiting for their tour guide made a beeline for Henry, who is, admittedly, irresistible, and proceeded to mess with his ears. Henry is a social animal—if the Orkin man, say, were to walk through the door, he’d run around in circles, jump on and off every piece of nearby furniture, mewl and bark, and go into a general paroxysm of joy. But on the street, he tends toward reticence. So I cut the visit short and yanked him away, at which point the predators began to make a fuss about how cruel I was being to my dog. Clearly, they’d never walked a beagle, an ongoing ballet of pushes and pulls, yanks and coaxings, and anyway, I couldn’t be mean to Henry if I tried hard. So now I was stomping mad and in the middle of the street when some newly formed asphalt protrusion launched me like a missile. Henry was not only unhurt, he was too busy sniffing to notice. I knew I was not so lucky, which made me madder still. Apparently the tourists do not spend enough money for the city to do basic things like pave the streets, which are not unlike those of Afghanistan, where I have been. (They also don’t make us enough money to replace the four hundred cops we’ve lost in the last five years. If you don’t fall down, you might get shot instead, but I digress.)

After a couple of months of trial and error, I found a South African miracle worker in Manhattan named David Helfet. Now my elbow is fixed and I can type and I only have to wear a sling for another month or two. Plus, it was not a brain tumor or anything else a really smart Afrikaner couldn’t ultimately fix with a couple of screws and a plate, so I’m lucky. I was also reminded, at this advanced stage of my career, of the importance of putting pen to actual paper. Some of my best writing has always been on the back of vomit bags on airplanes—I’m not kidding—and I was forced to resort to this again (though mostly on a legal pad). I can hear, suspended in the air, the rhythm of my voice—my slowed-down, already edited voice—telling me what to write, quick, before I forget it, so I usually reach for the closest thing to hand.

Shelby Foote wrote six novels, countless letters (notably to his closest friend, Walker Percy), and his unsurpassed three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative in longhand with an ink pen, a real one he called a “dip pen” because you had to repeatedly dip it in a pot of ink. During that one twenty-year project, he put more than a million words on paper, but he didn’t mind. In fact, he felt it was crucial. He told an interviewer, “I like the feel that a pen or pencil gives you, being in close touch with the paper and with nothing mechanical between you and it. The very notion of a word processor horrifies me.” I can only imagine his horror at Siri and the rest, but it would be a moot point. No dictation app on the planet could have made sense of Foote’s courtly Deep South cadences, and the world is better for it.

Want more Julia Reed? Her book South Toward Home is a collection of both rollicking and warm stories about the highs and lows of Southern life.