Guest Blog Post, Michael Davis: On the Art of Talking to Oneself

M. Davis stock photo for postI went through a phase where I was writing from my dreams. I’d wake up and try to get story ideas from the things I’d written on a little notepad during the night. It went like: susurrous–Cambodia–Remember this!–not harm but the other–bullshit–cantaloupe–too true? Sometimes, it looked more like an unfortunate cardiograph, like I was doing a contour drawing with my eyes shut. I’d turn the page upside-down. I’d wonder what certain squiggles meant.

I switched to a voice recorder. This was better but it scared me. The sound of my voice floating up through deep theta was unnerving, made me think of a seance. I’d be sitting at my desk, cup of coffee, yellow steno pad, obsessive-compulsive story writing pen (Uniball Vision Micro 0.5mm–there shall be no other) poised to take down anything promising, and I’d hear myself half in a dream, speaking from a world of ghosts–a man with a green hat who kept telling me about my mother; my old German Shepherd, Shadow, leading me through the rooms of the house I grew up in; ex-girlfriends; former students.

I’d get sentences, whole paragraphs. Some of it was nonsensical. Other things were deeply painful memories I normally tried not to think about. It surprised me that I was dwelling on those things fairly regularly while asleep–and that some part of me had remembered to wake up and drone into the voice recorder. The sleeping Michael was a different person, a stranger who took emotional risks, who went to difficult places while the protective drawbridge of consciousness was temporarily down. I filled notebook after notebook and learned some interesting things about myself. But none of it seemed to apply to my fiction in any meaningful way.

Around this time, I was in the last year of my PhD. I’d published my first book of stories (Gravity, Carnegie Mellon, 2009) the year before and thought it would be a good idea to go to the AWP conference being held in Denver. I brought the voice recorder, but I didn’t continue my subconscious spelunking while there. Instead, I did what everyone does at the AWP conference. I walked around and bought books, listened to panel discussions, talked to people I already knew, stared wistfully out my hotel room window, and burned through my grocery budget for the next three months. In retrospect, however, the trip was justified because I learned something important about writing: I was going to have to write more and do it more quickly.

In the middle of the Colorado Convention Center’s exhibit level where, in a trade show, there would be a local model posing on a combine harvester, there was instead a table full of literary agents. They were from a local agency and had made themselves available for questions. At that time, I had never spoken with an agent. So I took advantage of the opportunity and struck up a conversation about how one markets a novel to the “Big 6” (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan–you get the idea). I wanted to know if there was a special kind of etiquette agents followed with the biggest publishing houses.

When I asked the question, the young agent in a navy suit that should have been beyond his earning capacity, pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked at me carefully as if he might have to pick me out of a lineup someday. “No,” he said. “There’s no special procedure.” Then he reminded himself to smile. “But if you want to succeed with the trade houses long term, you need to be really productive. Can you write around 300 pages a year?” I said no, I didn’t think so, thanked him, and got out of there as quickly as possible. A book a year? It had taken me six years to produce the stories in my 200-page collection. I had 75 pages of a novel that had taken me most of the previous year.

Later, catching up on some window staring in my hotel room, I tried to envision that level of productivity. One page a day? Writing from canned outlines? Some kind of method book, How to Write a Blockbuster Novel in 2 Weeks and Avoid the ER? I didn’t know. I picked up my voice recorder and started complaining about it to myself. I bitched for around 90 minutes. Then, as I started to get tired, I thought I might turn my rant into a piece of creative nonfiction–something about running up against the cruel commodifying values of the publishing industry in Denver. When I typed up what I’d recorded, I had 35 pages and a brand new idea about how to write more without sacrificing quality.

Since then, I’ve experimented with narrating stories and novel chapters into a voice recorder the way I’d once narrated my dreams. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write 300 pages of polished fiction a year. But I’ve learned to be more productive this way, to carry some of that dream energy into my conscious drafting. And I’ve learned to hear my own voice the way I hear someone at a literary reading–listening for the caesuras, the paragraphs, the meanings that emerge from syntax.

I tell my students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop to at least read what they’ve written out loud to themselves. I tell them that their ears will teach them new things about narrative. I say stories were originally meant to be heard and there are lessons about storytelling we can only learn that way. Some of them believe me.

Those of us who have become fascinated with producing spoken drafts have also learned that, while text-based revision is still necessary to produce a finished product, beginning with the spoken word can connect us to a primal source of creative expression. Now I begin every draft by speaking at least part of it into a voice recorder, deliberately tapping into that ghost world of my other self, shaping narrative with the energy of dreams and visions that return to me in my own voice. I listen and write down what I hear, paying close attention to the speaker.

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9 thoughts on “Guest Blog Post, Michael Davis: On the Art of Talking to Oneself

  • February 23, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Great advice on ways to produce more creativity. I particularly like the tape recorder idea. I often talk to myself when I’m trying to figure out a scene or a character’s motivation, and recording it would help me when I go to write it!

  • February 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Thank you for this post. I can’t comprehend writing 300 pages, fifty pages seems daunting enough. But your relationship to writing/recording your dreams is a compelling idea. Even if nothing discernible directly comes from that, it has a mystical and hopefully inspirational function. I think the take away is to take the barriers down we create around our creativity out of fear, and write.

  • February 24, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    I’d love to try this. I definitely agree that there is a difference between words that remain on the page and ones that are spoken aloud. I also think this would be cool to try because when you talk, you solidify and make sense of your thoughts as opposed to leaving them in the clutter of your mind.

  • February 25, 2013 at 8:28 am

    This is definitely something I’m going to consider trying in the future. I, like many others, talk to myself when I’m writing, and perhaps something useful could come of recording that! Also, hearing what you’ve written aloud read back to you in your own voice away from when you initially read what you had written aloud could prove to be useful.

  • February 25, 2013 at 11:31 am

    As some have already said, using a tape recorder is a good idea. When I went to a science fiction exhibit last year, Alan Dean Foster (author of Star Trek) was there and he talked to a couple of us about how to “be writer.” He said that anyone can have a great idea, but writers can really write about anything. That being said, he suggested that if you have a great story idea, but are having a hard time putting it to paper, try telling someone (or yourself) the idea aloud and recording what you say.
    As you point out in this post, the spoken word connects us to a primal creativity, which I’ve found is definitely true, since many of my best stories started out as ideas that only really developed when I verbalized them.

  • February 25, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    I totally agree that the “sound” of your voice when you read your work is very important. When I read other’s work I have a wide variety of voices to choose from: male, female, southern dialect, new york, slow pace, fast, sarcastic, etc. It’s interesting which one pops up. For some reason an older british gentlemen is always my go to standard, never my own, which is interesting. I also like that you have a favorite pen type because I totally do to!

  • February 25, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    I have definitely done this before. At one point in my life, I realized that talking to myself verbally instead of trying to write down all my thoughts was much easier. It helped me get past two things, my scatterbrained ramblings and my fear of hearing my own voice in recording. I can’t imagine writing 300 pages a year since the second blank page seems daunting to me. I always read my writing out loud to myself for the exact reason you talk about here. Whether it’s an essay for class or just a short story, hearing it spoken is one of the best methods of editing.

  • March 7, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    This is fascinating and I can’t believe I overlooked it for this long (I’m normally pretty good about checking the blog 2-3 a week, usually at the end and beginning of it). There’s a lot to be learned here: tricks of the trade, the grueling process of working for the “Big 6,” self discovery through dream recording, preserving in spite of complications, and how all stories are tied back to the oral tradition.

    I’ve never tried speaking into a voice recorder, but I’ve considered it. Sometimes ideas come to me very quickly and I can speak quicker than I can type (especially given the impairment my hands have). Living where I do, however, I run the risk of background noise, people listening in, and my family asking why I’m talking to myself and looking at me funny. There isn’t too much privacy in my house when people are home.

    However, it’s something to try when I am alone and making a practice of once I move in the next two years.

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