What Writing Is

pace Mark Coeckelbergh and David Gunkel

My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher’s emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter. In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, The diving bell and the butterfly, pp. 5-6

Bauby was not just completely paralyzed when he wrote his book; he was “locked-in”. When he says that an emissary will arrive and “take dictation”, he means that she will patiently say each letter of the alphabet and write down the one she got to when he blinks. That is, he composed the book in his head and then communicated it to a scribe one letter at a time with his eyes. He was clearly a “writer”. He “wrote” a book. But what part of this process was the actual writing?

The transfer of letters from his head to the page is, of course, an essential part. Without that, he would not be writing, but is he actually writing when the dictation is going on? Interestingly, even though it would not be writing without the transcription onto the page, I want to say that the letter-by-letter communication of the text to the emissary is not actually “writing”. In an important sense, the writing has already happened by this point. He has, literally, written the chapter “in his head”.

Borges has a character “write” a play in his head, too, just before he dies. It never sees the surface of a page. But here, too, I think we would say the writing did get done.

I have elsewhere said that “writing is something we do with our hands”. But this case shows that this statement is not at all accurate. People who have no hands or hands tied behind their backs or hands but no motor neurons to use them can still write. Bauby describes the process much as we would describe writing on paper or with a word processor (much like what I’m doing now): churning over sentences, deleting and adding words, composing paragraphs. Writing, it turns out, is, first of all, a mental activity. It can literally, almost, be all in your head.

That does not mean that our inner monologue is always an act of writing. I want to say that we are writing when we are thinking about putting words on a page — or, of course, when we’re actually doing it. We are writing when we intend to represent our thoughts or feelings in a durable linguistic form. Bauby was not just daydreaming; he was composing. And though he did at each point have those paragraphs in his head (or, better, by his heart) — a whole chapter at a time, as I understand it — the act of transcription must have been important to him. The moment where he has “set it down” must have felt very special — he has “gotten it off his chest”. That’s what I mean when I say that, while most of the writing was already done before the emissary arrives, the transcription is nonetheless essential to the process. Bauby wanted those words to end up on a page. That desire is part of writing.

To write is to imagine words on a page. If you can manage it, it often helps to actually put them there. For most of us, it’s the only way to be sure we’ve actually done it.

2 thoughts on “What Writing Is

  1. An aside that is something you surely know, but did not mention: After he went blind, Borges composed his texts in his head and then dictated them, first to his mother and later, after her death, to Maria Kodama.

    I heard a perhaps apocryphal story once that when he dictated “Borges y yo” to his mother, her first words when he finished were, “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written.”

    1. That’s a good point. I knew he went blind but I didn’t know that this was his way of dealing with it. It makes sense, of course. I wonder if this is more common among blind people. Technically, they could use braille to type and revise their texts.

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