Category Archives: Writing

On the value of transcribing…

I have a habit of transcribing recorded conversations and passages from books as a way of gleaning a more in-depth understanding of a subject. There’s something about transcribing for me that aids in the digestion of certain concepts that enter my brain in that specific manner.

There’s a chapter in Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Cat’s Cradle, wherein the narrator asks a “vacantly pretty” woman of twenty named Francine Pesko—who is introduced to him by a Dr. Breed as the secretary for a Dr. Nilsak Horvath, a famous surface chemist “who’s doing such wonderful things” with films—the question: “What’s new in surface chemistry?”

“God,” she said. “don’t ask me. I just type what he tells me to type.” And then she apologized for having said, “God.”

“Oh, I think you know more than you let on,” said Dr. Breed.

“Not me.” Miss Pesko wasn’t used to chatting with someone as Dr. Breed and she was embarrassed. Her gait was affected, becoming chickenlike. Her smile was glassy, and she was ransacking her mind for something to say, finding nothing in it but used Kleenex and costume jewelry.

Since Cat’s Cradle was published in 1963, we can say that Miss Pesko’s attitude was not unusual for the era, but the excuse just doesn’t hold up for me when I think of my grandmother, who was a medical transcriptionist in 1963 and forty-one years old at the time.

My grandmother soaked in the knowledge she gained from transcribing and decades later, when I was an adult, she would rattle off medical facts in conversations that made her sound like she, herself, was a seasoned medical professional.

I’m very much like my grandmother in that way. In fact, I consider myself a knowledge junkie. And, I don’t understand how people can affect an attitude of willful ignorance about things with which they are in daily contact.

There’s no excuse to remain ignorant when most of us have access to a tremendous body of knowledge at our finger tips.

Add “ing” to a movie title.

Here’s a writing prompt that’s sure to stimulate your imagination and get the creative juices flowing and it’s a level up in the game of adding “ing” to movie titles. Not only do you have to add “ing” to the title, you also have to write a description.

DIE, HARDING

A dark comedy about the rivalry between Olympic ice skating champions Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. In the aftermath of the attack on Kerrigan by Harding’s former boyfriend, Nancy Kerrigan hallucinates a graphic medley of revenge fantasy murder attempts on Tonya Harding. With a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, this film has been hailed by critics as a labor of loathe.

LADY BIRDING

Meryl Streep’s tour-de-force performance as a 19th-century Englishwoman struggling for acceptance as an equal in the company of a group of men that belong to an elite club of all-male bird watchers. Directed by Jonathan Livingston Seagal.

A GHOSTING STORY

Where did they go? What did I do? Was it something I said? Everyone leaves me and relationships suck. Directed by Roman Polanski.

THORING

A shy young man with a lisp overcomes his insecurities and, in spite of his speech impediment, he becomes the Top Gun of glider pilots. Starring Tom Cruithe.

ENTERING THE DRAGON

Shrek’s pal, Donkey, finally releases the sex tape nobody wanted.

PITCHING PERFECT

A tedious biopic of a baseball player with a pitching technique so perfect that no player can hit his balls. No hits, no runs, no game. Solid performance, though, by Kevin Costner as the aging ball player.

HOUSE OF WAXING

A sinister Brazilian esthetician sets up shop in Beverly Hills and makes a killing in the bikini waxing business. Produced by the Weinstein Company.

DIAL MING FOR MURDER

Flash Gordon’s nemesis gives up his throne on Mongo to become a contract killer for the mob.

STARING WARS

Han blinked first.

DYING HARD

A tough homicide detective exposes the deadly danger of Viagra addiction in this modern film noir. Narrated by Peter O’Toole.

Flowers for Jean-Dominique

I want to write. But…

Hold that thought.

I’m standing before the grave of Jean-Dominique Bauby at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris with a journal in one hand and a pot of chrysanthemums in the other—paying my respects to this remarkable writer.

I open my journal and read some words I’ve transcribed into it from a book called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an English translation of a French book called Le Scaphandre et le Papillon written by the man in the ground at my feet.

These sentences were “written” by a writer unable to use his hands to type words, communicate through gestures, or to speak words to be transcribed by another writer.

No need to wonder very long where I am, or to recall that the life I once knew was snuffed out Friday, the eighth of December, last year.

Up until then, I had never even heard of the brainstem. I’ve since learned that it is an essential component of our internal computer, the inseparable link between the brain and the spinal cord. I was brutally introduced to this vital piece of anatomy when a cerebrovascular accident took my brain stem out of action.

The accident that rendered Jean-Dominique Bauby mute and immobile?

In the past, it was known as a massive stroke, and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move.

But, how was Jean-Dominique able to communicate the words you’ve just read if he was unable to speak or move?

In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.

Wait—What?

Of course, the party chiefly concerned is the last to hear the good news. I myself had twenty days of deep coma and several weeks of grogginess and somnolence before I truly appreciated the extent of the damage. I did not fully awake until the end of January. When I finally surfaced I was in room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, on the French Channel coast–the same Room 119, infused now with the first light of day, from which I write.

Enough rambling. 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.

He writes these words by dictating his memoir, one letter at a time, to his clever and efficient conversational co-conspirator, Claude Mendibil, who lists the letters in accordance with their frequency in the French language.

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.

By a fortunate stroke of luck and intuition Jean-Do’s physical therapist noticed that he could blink his left eyelid—his paralyzed right eyelid had been sewed shut to prevent his eyeball from drying up—and she had devised a communication system called partner-assisted scanning, which utilized his singular muscular ability to dictate a beautiful memoir.

Le système est assez rudimentaire. On m’égrène l’alphabet version ESA jusqu à ce que d’un clin d’œil j arrête mon interlocuteur sur la lettre qu’il doit prendre en note.

It is a simple enough system. You read off the alphabet (ESA version, not ABC) until, with a blink of my eye, I stop you at the letter to be noted. The maneuver is repeated for the letters that follow, so that fairly soon you have a whole word, and then fragments of more or less intelligible sentences. That, at least, is the theory. In reality, all does not go well for some visitors. Because of nervousness, impatience, or obtuseness, performances vary in the handling of the code (which is what we call this method of transcribing my thoughts). Crossword fans and Scrabble players have a head start. Girls manage better than boys. By dint of practice, some of them know the code by heart and no longer even turn to our special notebook—the one containing the order of the letters and in which all my words are set down like the Delphic oracle’s.

And what are those travel notes of which Bauby babbles about? They’re excursions of the imagination, of course—the only recourse for a traveler physically bound and rooted in place like an oak tree. His thoughts branch out, stretching beyond the boundaries of place, allowing his mind (which he likens to a diving bell) to take flight like a butterfly.

You can wander off in space and time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and ambitions.

Ten months and two hundred thousand blinks later Jean-Do completes his magnificient memoir and expires from pneumonia on 7 March 1999—two days after his book is published.

Bauby’s story is often my inspiration to write. My motivation.

Je veux écrire. Mais…

I set the pot of chrysanthemums on his grave, move to a nearby bench, open my journal, and write like there are no excuses.

Practicing the art of writing microfiction: The drabble

Microfiction seems to be popular these days with early 21st century writers.

Maybe it’s because of the shortened attention span of multitasking modern readers using smartphones and tablets. Or, maybe it’s simply because writing microfiction is a challenging way to sharpen concise writing skills.

As much as I love writing concise compositions of polished prose using precisely 336 words, I also occasionally enjoy dashing off even more concise compositions of fifty words (a mini-saga) and a hundred words (a drabble).

A drabble, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a vignette of precisely one hundred words.

The word was coined by the silly persons in Monty Python’s Flying Circus—described in Monty Python’s Big Red Book (1971) as a word game for 2–4 players.

The first player to write a novel is the winner.

Since it would be absurd to play the game in the real world within such a short period of time it was determined that a drabble would have to be a very short novel in order to play the game in real time.

Aside from the text of the drabble, the author is allowed up to fifteen additional words for the title and the inclusion of the author’s name.

My spin on the drabble is to use an image with the story, like the following piece inspired by a Chagall painting:

PARIS THROUGH THE WINDOW 2013-1913

By Richard La Rosa

I rush into my SoHo apartment, glancing briefly at the clutter of masterpieces bathed in murky light, before fixing my gaze on the Chagall on the bricked-up window.

Stolen for my art-forger brother a hundred years ago it was created, like all the other paintings, with an extraordinary oil paint made by a Hungarian witch.

A witch whose genetic imprint is stamped in my own art-thief eyes.

Focusing my eyes on the painting, actually my escape hatch, I reach into Chagall’s 1913 Paris to take my brother’s hand.

The past becomes present just before the future unbecomes.

***

Richard La Rosa is an American writer.

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