I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 20 of Write While True.
The name of this podcast is a program that goes into an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game.
It’s like a game of catch, which is even more fun when you get better at it, but the only way to do that is to keep playing.
So in each episode, I’ll tell you something I learned about writing and then I’ll throw you the ball with a writing challenge or prompt.
This is season two, which is about restarting after stopping.
I’m exploring this topic in the context of restarting this podcast after a two-year hiatus.
My first computer was missing a piece
When I was 13, my mom got me an electric typewriter for Christmas. She was a secretary, and she taught me how to touch type, and she wanted me to have something to practice on. But unfortunately, when I opened it up, it didn’t work.
So we had to take it back to Radio Shack to see if we could get a replacement. Radio Shack is out of business now. So if you don’t know it, in the 80s, it was a place where, well, you could get radios, for sure. You could get TVs, other electronics, but it was also a hobbyist place. You could get wire, and diodes, and capacitors, and transistors, and build your own radio.
It was early in the PC era, so they even dabbled in making computers. It didn’t go well. So on this day, a week or so after Christmas, they were trying to move their old inventory, and they had a 4K color computer for about the same price as an electric typewriter, about 50 bucks. So I convinced my mom to get that for me instead.
I was in a computer shop in school, where we worked on a Commodore PET. But this let me continue programming at home. It supported the programming language Basic, not the exact same dialect as the PET, but close enough.
The computer itself was a CPU built into a keyboard. It didn’t have a monitor, you used your television for that, and it didn’t have a storage device. You were supposed to use a cassette tape and a tape recorder, but I actually never got that working. So every day that I used my computer, I would type whatever program I wanted into it, whatever I could do that evening, play around. And then when I was done and I shut off the computer, it would be gone, and I’d come in the next day, and maybe type that same one again, or another one, play with it, shut it off, and just start over the next morning.
At some point, I decided I wanted to do something a little bigger, so I took out a pen and paper, wrote as much of the program down as I could out, typed it in, played around, and then, at the end of the evening, shut the computer off.
The next day, I would type in what I had done the night before, and then keep going a little. Add a few more lines. I was trying to make a clone of Defender, a game from the 80s, and I got really far over the course of a month or two.
And then I would try something else in this way, just programming as much as I could in a day, writing it down, doing more the next day, but every day, starting over by typing in what I had up until then.
Repetition helped me learn
All of this repetition really helped me become a pretty good typist, which was what my mom wanted in the first place, so that was good. I also was learning how to edit code quickly, like how to get code into a computer quickly, and so I was learning the tools and materials of programming, and to some extent I was also becoming a better and better programmer, as I would go over the same area again and again, I would improve it. I might realize that some piece of code I was doing could be done simpler. I had to keep typing it in every night, so I had a lot of incentive to do that.
I was recently thinking about this and thinking about what I could learn from it to help improve my writing. The big thing I learned was that if you repeat something over and over again, and practice it, you get better at it.
In a way, I was doing programming in the same way a lot of people learn how to play a musical instrument. If you’re learning to play guitar, after you learn a few chords, maybe you can start to learn how to play a song. You play the same song over and over again until you learn it. By doing that, you become more and more familiar with the guitar itself, the tools and the materials of music playing. You get better at manipulating the strings, and the same is true for any instrument.
As I’ve said in past podcasts, I like to sketch, and it’s the same there. By doing sketches, sometimes I do the same sketch over and over again, and I just get better at manipulating the pen or pencil or charcoal and the paper that I’m using.
Applying this to writing
I was thinking about what would the equivalent be for writing. What could I do practice over and over again to get better at writing on demand? Morning pages are certainly one idea, but morning pages don’t result in publishable writing. Even if I prompt them, like I mentioned in last week’s episode, they’re more coherent, but still pretty unpublishable.
In episode three, I talked about how quickly I put together first drafts, and I think that is something I really want to get better at, because any first draft I write, I do intend to publish eventually.
But there is one practice that I started last month that I’m using to make these podcasts that has made it easier to get first drafts of this podcast and is very much like the kind of repetition I’m talking about.
In season one, all of my podcasts were scripted. I sat down and wrote them all out before I recorded them. One of the reasons I think I stopped podcasting is because that was just too hard.
This time around, I changed the way I write podcasts. I’m starting with extemporaneous speaking into a microphone. I think a little bit about what I’m going to say. Maybe write out the first few lines, but I just see what comes out after speaking for about 15 minutes.
This extemporaneous speaking is writing. I’m writing on demand like morning pages, but in a more focused way that I do intend to publish.
While I am doing this extemporaneous writing, if I don’t like how something came out, I say it again a different way. I might try a section over and over again until I go on. This is the repetition that makes the writing better and I never really do this when writing first drafts by hand, but it’s so easy to do while speaking that it doesn’t really slow me down.
In a way, I’m also practicing speaking, but while I do use the words that I say, I don’t use any of the speech.
In order to go from an extemporaneous speaking to writing, I use a program called whisper, which you can get from Open AI. It’s really good at transcribing MP3 files. The transcription is a first draft and then I use that first draft to develop a final script.
The podcast is me reading that script. Like I’m doing right now.
By practicing extemporaneous speaking over and over again, I hope to be able to write more quickly because I’m dictating writing and I’m not held back by the speed of my typing or longhand writing.
Try extemporaneous writing
So here’s something to try at home. Put together a first draft this week by using extemporaneous speaking into a microphone. On your iPhone, you can download the voice memos app from Apple. I use a program called Audio Hijack on my Mac. You could use Garage Band or Audacity or any program that records voice.
And like I said, you would use whisper to transcribe it. It’s a command line program. You just type whisper and the name of the MP3 and it’ll dump out text in various formats.
I’ll put a link in the show notes, so go and download it, record your mp3 and turn it into a first draft.
Thanks for listening. This has been Write While True, a podcast where we’re ok with infinite loops, as long as they’re fun.