Bad Advice Wednesday: Be Like Nixon!

categories: Cocktail Hour


This may seem like really bad advice at first….be like…Tricky Dick?  Of course he is starting to seem less creepy in a world of Santorums and Gingrichs and Ws…..But still plenty creepy.

No, I am not suggesting that Nixon should be your moral model, just that he had one habit that comes in handy when you are a writer.  The guy taped everything.

For my part, I use a Sony micro-cassette recorder, and this recorder has become an integral part of my writing life.  My goal is to re-create my voice on the page.  What better way to do that than to actually re-create my voice? 

Be warned that it can be an awkward tool at first.  I quickly got over the whole “I don’t like the sound of my voice” thing, but back when I started, over two decades ago, you looked a little crazy if you talked to yourself in public.No more of course, as we rush about, all chattering to ourselves like a nation of schizophrenics.  So you’ll fit right in–they’ll think it’s a phone.  But another problem was the pomposity factor.   Think of the Alan Alda character in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” talking into his tape recorder: “Brilliant idea for a scene…”

A larger challenge is to start to actually compose on the tape recorder, since most of us associate composition with privacy and typing/writing.  This takes a while but it can be thrilling once you realize that your rhythms  speaking into the machine can be almost exactly like your rhythms while writing.  My original use for the recorder was to simply remember things–chapter titles, good lines, snippets of dialogue I overheard.  I still use it to this end, and, like Nixon, I tape other people when they talk (though I ask).  In writing My Green Manifesto, I jutted out the tape recorder (snug in a ziplock bag) across the canoe to record Dan Driscoll as we paddled down the Charles River. 

But more vital, for me, are the long walks I take with dog and tape recorder.  Sometimes I’ll pose myself some simple questions when I start the walk: Where should the next chapter go?  How does this concept of wildness versus control fit into the essay?  Why does this section feel claustrophobic?  But I never try to answer them directly, letting the walk take care of that.  Then when the words–and sometimes the answers–start coming, I break out the recorder.

Often enough these sentences, spoken out loud, become a rough draft for what I’ll later write at my desk, without even re-playing what I’ve recorded.  But just as often, maybe more often, I get some good stuff, and as I transcribe it from the tape I fiddle with the sentences, which means the process becomes, in effect, another draft.  And on a very rare occasion I will speak an entire essay onto the tape.  That is what happened with “A Letter to a Neighbor,” an essay which I published in Orion magazine.  The occasion for this essay was a dawn walk below our neighborhood bluff on Cape Cod when I looked up to see the foundation and skeletal beams of the massive trophy house being built.  I was filled with love of the place and anger about the house and out came the essay, whole, right onto the tape.

One final advantage of this sort of composition is that it offers a change of pace after hours at the desk.  “A change is as good as a rest,” said both Churchill and Lady Grantham.  For me walking is a great writing rhythm.  Legs move and words come.  It was Churchill’s preferred mode of composition by the way, and, after a long day of politics, painting and partying, he would head to his study and dictate a few thousand words to his team of transcribers.  I don’t have a team, but my trusty Sony Micro works fine.

So be like Nixon.  Sweat a lot, lie, never fully shave.  And tape things, too.

  1. daisy writes:

    I’m going to amazon to buy one right now. I do a 3-6 hour drive (each way) to Tahoe every weekend. I always have a THOUSAND ideas – when I’m not listening to Agatha Christie mysteries on “tape” that is.


    Thank you! xx.

    • dave writes:

      Great. Very happy to give practical, non-airy advice that can be put to use. Makes me feel good!

  2. Tommy writes:

    From “Late Show Fun Facts” by David Letterman:

    Richard Nixon would always get a laugh at family barbecues by wearing an apron that read, “I am not a cook!”

    More “Fun Facts”:

    Theologians now believe the Last Supper may have been more of a brunch.

    At the beginning of his career, Harry Houdini’s signature stunt was getting out of dinner with the in-laws.

    Nutmeg is 98 percent nut, two percent meg.

    The molecular composition of a rain slicker is nearly identical to that of Velveeta.

    In the Adirondack Mountains, Adirondack chairs are called “chairs”.

    In the four years he was vice president, Dan Quayle used up only one “From the Desk of Dan Quayle” notepad.

    When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When it gives you gators, make Gatorade.

  3. Rahul Dave writes:

    And create the EPA! Compared to the modern day republicans, Nixon is positively Rooseveltian (T) (“we’re all Keynesians now!”).

    I love the tape recorder idea. Using the phone these days (:-)), wish Dragon dictate on it would allow you to pause and go on, rather than transcribing earlier 🙂