When Sandra Alland was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2003, a giant question mark was placed over her artistic future. She had already been suffering from chronic joint pain and fatigue for several years, so she had to face facts. She became conscious of the fact that previously simple things like typing would soon be nearly impossible, a potentially terrifying prospect for a writer.
“I realized I wasn’t going back to how things had been,” the Scarborough-born artist says. “I remember at my book launch in 2004 being shocked I could sign books, as writing had been physically painful or impossible for much of 2003. There were times when it was overwhelming. I would write or type a paragraph and be unable to continue. I wondered if that was it for me as a writer.”
Alland’s solution also became the creative process for her new book, Naturally Speaking. An ex who’d suffered a severe brain injury after a bike accident tipped her off to a new voice-activated software program, called Dragon NaturallySpeaking, that she could use to dictate her work.
“The early version was hilariously bad,” she says. “But over the years it’s improved greatly. Initially, I found it frustrating and slow, but at least I could write emails and letters with it. Composing poetry or stories was much more difficult as my creativity seems to be tied to my hands, not to my voice. But as I came to accept the limitations of my body, I realized it could be fun and interesting for my writing practice. I decided to treat it as an inspiration of sorts.”
The software works by creating a virtual version of the user by studying the user’s voice, vocabulary and writing style. Alland’s process aimed to uncover and engage with this other self as a collaborator. The program also yields sometimes hilarious results, through the words included and omitted in its pre-programmed dictionary.
“There seems to be an abundance of names of corporations and rightwing politicians,” Alland says. “If I say something it doesn’t understand, it will often type something like ‘Coca-Cola Margaret Thatcher.’ It also refuses to use profane language and must be taught to swear letter by painstakingly dictated letter.”
For Naturally Speaking Alland dictated poems she had written to the software, preserving some of the mistakes it made. She also experimented with laughing or crying into the microphone, as well as reading poems by other authors in French or Spanish.
“The idea was to see if a residue of the original would remain and if poetry could emerge despite or beyond language,” she says. “In most cases this did not happen, though in a few it did. But the mostly failed part of the experiment yielded some of my favourite lines. Many of my usual poetic concerns around language, race, class, sexuality, ability and gender came through in funny and sometimes striking ways.”
“I’m not sure how it will be received,” she adds. “But it’s a good omen that when I did a reading in Edinburgh, no one threw haggis at me.”