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Illustration by The Globe and Mail

Gabrielle Drolet is a journalist and cartoonist based in Montreal.

I’m writing this with voice-to-text. It isn’t going well.

I’m sitting at my desk, my laptop propped up in front of me with a small black microphone beside it. As I write, I say everything you would usually type on a keyboard out loud: I say the words, “period,” “comma,” “semicolon”; I say, “italicize”; I say “new paragraph” and “delete sentence.” I also say profanities when the software misunderstands me, which is often.

“I’ve been typing this way for about a year,” I say.

“I’ve been typing this way for amount here,” the computer writes.

“About a year,” I repeat, raising my voice and enunciating each word clearly.

“A mountain here,” it types.

“Damn it,” I mutter.

“Damn it,” it types.

I laugh at this – a sound the computer tries to process but can’t – and I give up, using my mouse to go back and fix the mistake manually. This short act of clicking, deleting and typing sends pain shooting down my forearms and fingers.

My computer and I play this game every day to varying degrees of frustration: I try to type something, and it finds increasingly absurd ways to mishear me. At this point, this is more funny than anything else. I’ve become used to writing this way, and better at ignoring the typos until it comes time to edit the article or essay I’m working on. I let the computer write up whatever it thinks I’m saying and come back to it when a draft is done.

There are times when the computer gets it so wrong that I can barely remember what I was trying to say – entire paragraphs needing to be decoded like hieroglyphs. However, for the most part, I get by with voice-to-text just fine.

Most days, I even like writing this way. I like leaning back in my chair and holding the mic up to my chin, orating an article like I’m telling a story (albeit with out-loud punctuation). It feels natural. I like watching the words appear on screen as I speak them, too. But I didn’t feel this way a year ago.

In February, 2021, I developed a nerve condition that would affect almost every part of my life, both professionally and personally. The condition, called thoracic outlet syndrome, was the result of overwork and bad ergonomics. The pandemic meant I was suddenly spending all my time working from home, writing hunched over my laptop on the couch like a goblin instead of upright at a desk.

The damage could have been minimal, but was made severe because I was misdiagnosed twice by physiotherapists, giving my symptoms the chance to progress beyond the point of being manageable. Pain manifested itself in my entire upper body, starting at my neck and spreading down through my arms and into my hands. Some days it was numbness instead of pain, my fingers turning red and swelling up as feeling left them entirely.

When this all started, I was a creative writing master’s student also working as a freelance journalist. This is to say that my life revolved around writing – a task that was suddenly extremely difficult for me. Any time spent at a keyboard caused my symptoms to flare up, my pain growing sharp or my hands becoming too numb to type at all. Writing with pen and paper wasn’t a viable alternative, bringing on the same symptoms.

Those early days were scary and disorienting. I suddenly had to change the way I lived and worked without much time to properly adapt. Given that writing was central to both my academic and professional life, I wasn’t able to take a beat and figure out how best to reapproach it. Instead, I dove headfirst into the world of voice-to-text, playing around with the free software available online.

If voice-to-text is still sometimes challenging today, it felt impossible when I was starting. I had yet to invest in an external microphone, so the software misunderstood me more than ever. I spoke so loudly that I was practically yelling, and most of my sentences still appeared so mangled on the screen I couldn’t make out what I was trying to say. My symptoms were also at their peak, so supplementing my voice with a mouse and a keyboard was less of an option than it is now. However, the hardest part wasn’t just getting the right words down; it was the fact that the words no longer sounded like my own.

We don’t often have to think about this, but the way we speak is incredibly different from the way we type or put pen to paper. Like most writers, years of practice had shaped my written voice into one I was proud of and familiar with: It had a certain cadence and style that felt like it was recognizably mine. As I started speaking my work out loud, that style eroded away until it was lost to me. I found myself unable to achieve the same voice I had before, no matter how hard I tried. This, more than anything else, made me tailspin.

When I say I started using voice-to-text, I want to be clear that this wasn’t just for writing articles and essays; it was for everything. Emails, text messages, tweets, grocery lists – everything was suddenly spoken out loud. For the most part, this all worked just fine (though I was embarrassed at speaking into my phone in front of friends or in public, which I pushed myself to overcome). Odd and unexpected problems cropped up, though.

“Hey comma what are we doing for dinner tonight?” I’d once asked my then-partner after work.

“Did you just say the word comma out loud?” My partner laughed.

I frowned. “Did I?”

I had, and it was a mistake I would continue to make. As I spent entire days writing with my voice, I became hyperaware of where punctuation went in my spoken sentences, sometimes letting it slip out conversationally. This problem was especially apparent when I read anything out loud, whether to myself or others: I would read the punctuation, too, forgetting that it’s only supposed to live on the page.

Voice-to-text was changing the way I spoke, thought and interacted with the world. But the area where I struggled most was still my relationship with creative writing. What was difficult wasn’t just using voice-to-text itself – it was the fact that my identity had long felt closely tied to my written voice, which was starting to feel irreparably different.

As I complained to my friends and peers about my challenges with writing, I had a hard time explaining what, exactly, the problem was. They would recommend solutions (new software, different microphones), but the issue wasn’t technical.

The harder I tried to speak in my “writing voice,” emulating what my old stories and articles sounded like, the worse my work sounded. It became awkward and stilted. I felt like a high-schooler fulfilling an assignment to do a pastiche of another writer, never fully able to attain her style.

It’s easy for what we do to feel closely tied to who we are. This can be especially true in creative fields, where our identities become wrapped up in work all too often. Being a writer was a bigger part of my identity than I’d realized until writing itself became physically difficult. As my voice shifted, I found myself grieving for it. Who was I, if not the writer I’d always been?

Writing stopped being something I enjoyed. More than that, it became something I was embarrassed by. Every time I handed in work to professors or editors, I always wanted to attach the disclaimer that it wasn’t really my work.

“I’m better than this!” I wanted to yell. “This isn’t me!”

No matter how often I was reassured that the way I was writing was fine, if a little different, I convinced myself it wasn’t. As my voice shifted and changed, I had the sense that it wasn’t really my voice any more at all.

It goes without saying that I’m far from the only writer who uses voice-to-text, though it’s hard to know how many of us do. Author Richard Powers writes this way by choice, explaining it makes his work sound more natural. Dan Brown reportedly writes his early drafts using dictation software, too. But the practice of dictation has been around long before computers have, and there are countless examples of it throughout literary history.

Agatha Christie wrote her novels using a Dictaphone, getting a typist to write them out afterward, while Winston Churchill famously dictated his speeches to a secretary. Other famous writers turned to dictation as a way to work while disabled, as I have. John Milton dictated all of his later poems, including Paradise Lost, after going completely blind in his 40s. Well into his career, novelist Henry James hired a secretary to take dictation when rheumatism made writing too painful and difficult.

All the way back in the 19th century, James was experiencing the same issues I’ve grappled with: He found his writing style changed when he spoke his stories out loud, saying he was too “diffuse” when he dictated. Eventually, however, he became so used to writing by speaking that it apparently became second nature.

I’ve thought a lot about why shifting to voice-to-text was so difficult for me (beyond the technical issues). When dictation has been around for hundreds of years and is present in mainstream publishing today, why did it feel like a life-altering obstacle?

Looking back, it’s clear that there were a few factors at play here. Chief among them is the fact that I didn’t want to accept that I was disabled – that my issue was chronic, and I would need to alter how I lived in a long-term, maybe even permanent way. I wasn’t ready to think of how disability might affect who I was and how I engaged with the world around me. I opted, instead, to reject it altogether. Rather than leaning into a new way of writing, I grasped and grieved for the way I’d done it before, feeling my sense of self slip away.

I spent almost a full year this way. I pushed myself to type with my hands whenever my symptoms were remotely better, which ultimately made them worse. I avoided writing for fun, only doing it when I had to.

Things didn’t shift until my understanding of disability did. As I slowly came to understand what it meant to be disabled and made other friends who were, I also accepted that the way I navigated the world would simply have to change, and that included how I wrote. Coming to this realization might have been easier if we spoke about disability and accessibility more often and openly – say, if I’d known that disabled writers have turned to dictation for hundreds of years.

Today, my hands are much better than they were when this all started over a year ago. Still, I mostly write with voice-to-text, being careful not to push myself just because I can. It’s a big part of both my professional and personal life, and I’ve learned to appreciate both the nuance and the humour in this. (After all, there’s something deeply funny about shouting at a computer alone in my office or saying the words, “colon,” “closed parentheses,” when I want to send a smiley face in a text.)

Despite the fact that I still sometimes struggle with the logistical sides of voice-to-text, having those little arguments with the computer every day, I’ve learned to celebrate the perks of it. I can identify the ways in which my writing sounds more conversational and to the point, more reflective of the way I speak. I can hear my vocal cadences in some of my written work, and genuinely appreciate that. And though my writing will probably never be the same as it was, I’m learning that’s not a bad thing.

I’m still a writer, even if I have to say it out loud.

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