Goltzius's Right Hand, Hendrick Goltzius, 1588

Goltzius's Right Hand, Hendrick Goltzius, 1588

If you find yourself moved to write me about something, you may reasonably expect to get an answer. That isn’t likely to happen, though, and I’d like to tell you why.

Three or four years ago I woke up one morning, showered, dressed, gtabbed a cup of coffee and jumped in my car to go somewhere. That was when I discovered that overnight, without warning, my right hand had so enfeebled itself that I couldn’t turn the key in the ignition. The rest of my body seemed to be all right, so I reached over with my left hand to start the car, meaning to ask my doctor what the hell was going on this time at the next chance I got.

I will skip to the chase, omitting a year or so of talking to neurologists and neurosurgeons and being subjected to various high-tech tests. What’s going on appears to be a neurological problem. In order for my brain to tell my fingers to twist an ignition key — or do anything else — it has to send them a message through a nerve which passes along my spinal column. Unfortunately my cervical vertebrae have become so attached to those nerves that they’re squeezing them to death. So the messages don’t get through; lacking orders from above the muscles don’t do anything at all; lacking exercise they atrophy.

Fortunately for me, they take their time about it, but they’re pretty thorough. The fingers of my right hand are the worst affected so far. What makes that annoying is that I use that hand for writing. At least the first draft of a lot of my books was written by hand, with a ballpoint pen on lined yellow pads, often while on a train, plane or ship that was going somewhere. That option is no longer open to me, because my handwriting, always atrocious, is now often quite illegible even to me.

Remains the computer. That still works for me, but not easily. I can still touch-type with my left hand (in the old days at almost a hundred words a minute) but the right hand can only hunt-and-peck with the forefinger.

This is bad news. It’s horribly slow and prone to myriad mistakes, which I have to correct as I go along, and, worst of all, after a page or two my right index finger begins to get pretty painful. So my writing time, whether for books, letters or any other task, is limited. Therefore, at least until I finish a couple of things I really want to write, correspondence time is squeezed even harder than my cervical nerves.

And listen, this isn’t a plea for sympathy. Hey, I’m 89 years old. That means that I am far luckier than most of the people I’ve known in being still able to write at all — or, for that matter, to still be breathing. It’s just to say that if you ever happen to think you should properly have had a longer letter from me, or indeed any letter at all, it isn’t that I don’t treasure you, it’s just that my finger hurts.

25 Comments

  1. Dave Ihnat says:

    I don’t expect you to write back; I don’t even expect you to remember me. But quite aside from all your work–that has been an enduring pleasure to me for decades now–you are special in my memory for a small, simple act over 20 years ago.

    It was WindyCon, 1985. I’d recently been dumped by my then-flame of five years, and was less than festive while celebrating my birthday. I’d been invited into the author’s party, and when you were pointed out to me, I was motivated by some strange whim to come over, introduce myself to you, and ask if you’d care to have a birthday shot with me. I had no expectation that you’d do any such thing; instead, you graciously considered the offer, and commented, “I believe I will. I haven’t had a shot for quite some time.” And you did.

    I still cherish that memory. Such a little thing, overall; yet it was a kindness, a consideration, that meant very much to me at that time, and still does. I simply wish to thank you again, and let you know I will never forget it.

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    I would be satisfied if this blog consisted of nothing but the working drafts of pieces which would go into a new version of “The Way the Future Was.”

    Anything else would be gravy.

  3. NelC says:

    Have you tried voice recognition software? I have a friend who got carpal tunnel syndrome from excessive typing at university, and she gets by with voice recognition these days. I understand that the software’s a lot better than it was.

  4. Mary Peed says:

    You might try voice recognition software. I have arthritis and have had some success with it (although it takes some time to train and can be very frustrating in the process).

  5. Sean Craven says:

    My sympathies with your condition. I would also like to suggest voice recognition software — but with a caveat.

    I’ve got lower back problems that keep me from being able to sit for long enough to do any real writing. In my attempts to find a way around this, I did try voice recognition software.

    What I found was that I speak in an entirely different fashion than I write — far more discursive and far less grammatical. I think this could have been addressed if I’d stuck with it, though.

    The hell of it is, is that writing is something that demands your total attention. If you’re going to achieve flow you need to be able to ignore the physical act so as to concentrate on the mental one. Again, my sympathies.

  6. Jeff says:

    I am less than half your age and have a similar problem with my feet. Some of my toes are quite numb. I have found that drinking water, rather than other soft drinks, coffee or tea helps. But not much.

    I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed your books. A good friend of mine sent me a copy of Space Merchants – she had read my books and thought I would enjoy yours, so that is how I discovered you. She was a huge fan of yours, but she died in child birth last year.

  7. Bruce Baugh says:

    In addition to the voice recognition software, for short things like e-mail and notes, you might want to look at handheld devices like the iPhone/iPod Touch and Palm’s upcoming Pre unit. They have lil’ keyboards made for use with the thumbs or a single finger – certainly nothing you’d want to use for extended work, or at least I don’t, but really handy for the small stuff.

  8. Romeo Vitelli says:

    Are you looking into any occupational therapy? Stroke patients get a lot of benefit and are often able to retrain their other hand to do a lot of the work that their dominant hand used to do. Granted, your condition doesn’t sound that severe but you can discuss rehab options with your doctor.

  9. mikey says:

    Voice recognition software – Dragonspeak, for example – would be my suggestion as well. It is far from perfect, and still prone to speeling errors and (sometimes) amusing word substitutions, but it can be a real useful tool and practical alternative to TFT (two finger typing). Glad to hear the Independence is still floating, I traveled the Atlantic on her and her sister the Constitution, many moons ago. Cheers, mikey

  10. Bruce Gillespie says:

    Hi, Mr Pohl… We’re not worried if you cannot reply to individual comments — it’s just delightful that you’ve embarked on a blog, and have so many interesting things to say. I’m particularly looking forward to additions to ‘The Way the Future Was’.
    Best wishes, Bruce Gillespie (editor, SF Commentary)

  11. soubriquet says:

    No reply sought or necessary.
    In the late sixties, early seventies, I was a teenager plagued by severe asthma, my escape was in reading. Unable to get out and about in the real world, I roamed the infinity of imaginary worlds, and the library was my hunting-ground.
    I’d search out those bright yellow Gollancz dust-covers, looking for more and more science-fiction, books which stretched my mind with all the “what-ifs” they generated.
    I’ve never been one for writing fan-mail, I imagine it becomes a chore for the recipient, but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you, for a rescue from pain, for a broadening of the mind, and for many, many hours of enjoyyment.
    Thank you.

  12. xenovalent says:

    Have you considered the one-handed Dvorak keyboard layouts? There will certainly be considerable retraining required (which will no doubt be difficult for someone who is 89 years and has likely spent a lifetime typing on QWERTY-style keyboards on various typewriters and keyboards), but they are specifically laid out to facilitate one handed typing.

  13. Stephen Peters says:

    This makes the fact that you are even taking the time to share things in this blog really special. Thanks for doing that.

  14. Shirley Hicks says:

    Look for Dragon Naturally Speaking. Once installed (and trained to your voice) you can automate many commands… and dictate.

    We’re looking into it right now for my mom, whose typing has been slowed by arthritis.

    I was just pointed to your blog. Whee! I gobbled up your stories in primary and middle school and was an unforgiving teenager (and college student) in getting impatient with the going rate of authorial production. :)

  15. Tina Black says:

    Hi Fred —

    I had a friend who was quadripelegic. For typing she had an artificial index finger that strapped around her right wrist. It was a rod that went under her palm and then bent downward like a poised finger at the end of her hand; and it had a little rubber tip like one on a cane, but the size of the tip of my little finger. She used it to tap keys.

    Such a tool might help with the tired and pained finger.

  16. G says:

    THe experience you are describing was one that resulted in a spinal operation for me and then a full recovery. I hope that you have had a real diagnosis and have decided whether the trauma of surgery is worth the result. Certainly, with age, surgery becomes more dangerous and may not be worthwhile. For me, after 5.5 hours on the table, when I woke up in recovery and had full power in my left hand, it was worth it. In addition, as nerves die, they don’t regenerate, so it’s a decision that needs to be made quickly, after consultation.
    But of course we don’t expect answers. I am so glad to find your blog through Scalzi and I will read backward and forward and be grateful that someone whose work I have enjoyed all my reading life is speaking to “me”. The Space Merchants has been a favorite book as long as I have been reading SF, and the older I get, the more I understand it.

  17. Louise van Hine says:

    Hello Fred!

    I have been a fan of your fiction since forever. I am delighted to see that not only are you still alive but still publishing – and now blogging! Sorry to hear about the hand though. Fortunately, as some of the other commenters have mentioned, technology is catching up. A friend of mine uses Dragon Naturally Speaking and has nothing but praise for its accuracy and speed. You’re not out of the game yet!

  18. Fathercrow says:

    I hate Dragon. Its just not intuative enough. Writing for me was always a fluid thing, hand to pencil, pencil to paper. Its more natural for my thinking process to use my hands to express my thoughts. Then I became a quadriplegic and they gave me Dragon Dictate and I could not write a word. Now I write with a stylus strapped to my hand. Its not as high tech as talking to the computer, but then talking is not writing, at least not for me. So pluck away, friend, as best you can.

  19. Raven Daegmorgan says:

    Greetings! I am overjoyed to have discovered (through Bruce Baugh) that you have a blog. The first book I checked out with my library card once I’d renewed it after a ridiculous number of years was “Platinum Pohl”, and I loved every minute I spent reading it.

    Fannish gushing aside, have you considered trying to teach yourself to write with your left hand? It’s bit of a crazy notion, but I haven’t seen it suggested yet, and it is within the realm of possibility (on a lark in high school I taught myself to write with either hand; though the print from my left was never of any laudable quality, it was readable). I realize that won’t solve the keyboarding problem (unless you happen to be able to grow a spare left hand or have one lying about), but it may perhaps help with the first draft issue.

  20. Rob Anderson says:

    Read your interview in Locus where you mentioned getting this blog up and running. Am happy you did and am enjoying the content and commentary.
    Have you tried any voice recognition software? Not sure what your technology tolerance is but it might help.
    I have many of your books and am reading JEM now. Loved Man Plus. Have been reading all you ‘old guys’ the past couple of years and collecting you too!
    Stay well. Best wishes.

  21. magikquilter says:

    Very interesting reading about how you used to write your novels and how you are now adapting to your spinal stenosis. I too have this and find blogging really distracting…especially from the pain. Ironically we who love science fiction so much for the hope that tomorrow may bring are living now with the definite knowledge of our own degeneration. But such is life and it is what we do with the now that counts so am thrilled to see you have taken up blogging. My son sent me this link, his love of science fiction exceeds my own and he writes it too!

  22. MorganJLocke says:

    Another big fan here, who doesn’t need a reply but is delighted to have discovered your blog. Your words have given me much pleasure and I’m glad you are online.

    As others have reported, my mom also uses Dragon Naturally Speaking and finds it works well for her.

    Looking forward to more postings!

  23. fs says:

    I’m sorry to hear about your hand. There are some devices like the Twiddler [http://www.handykey.com/] (which I kind of want, for the novelty of it) and the Frogpad [http://www.frogpad.com/] that might make typing faster and easier for you. I know there are also some software solutions, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head. (Googling “one-handed typing” or “one-handed keyboard” should probably produce them.)

  24. Michael Parker says:

    As some have mentioned above Dragon Naturally Speaking by Nuance works very well, my mother has carpal tunnel and has been using it for years to dictate student psychiatric evaluations.

    http://www.nuance.com/naturallyspeaking/

    If you’re a Mac-head like me they also have MacSpeak which does the same thing on a Mac. Looks like they also have an iPhone/iPod Touch app.

  25. bobby J. says:

    Dear Mr. Pohl, I’ve just heard your interview from 2003 with “Hour 25”, which I found marvellously entertaining and informative. I thought I would just inform you that the show your mentioned from Britain which adapted your stories for TV was called “Out of the Unknown”, and consisted of 49 episodes, two seasons BW, two in colour. The two adaptions from your stories were, ‘The Midas Plague’, and ‘The Tunnel Under the World’, which both survived the archieve purges. The first is an enjoyable episode, the second – despite a poor robot – a masterpiece and utterly beguiling. Other classic episodes are ‘Level Seven’ and ‘The Machine Stops, both from the same season, plus a magnificent adaption of John Brunner’s ‘The Last Lonely Man’ in the third season. Half of ‘The Little Black Bag’ also survives and seems to be perhaps the best of the three adaptions done for tv of that story. All of these are in the public domain, as is much of the ’60s and ’50s radio and TV output by the BBC. After all, you can’t copyright something you think you’ve destroyed. It is reagrded as “The finest series of it’s type to ever have been made” (and may at least have been the equal of the staggeringly good US shows ‘The Outer Limits’ and ‘The Twilght Zone’ and got complimentary letters from among others, John Wyndam, on their adaption of ‘Random Quest’. You can view it here….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vMfaakrj2o&feature=related

    I brought a book on the show a year ago. It would be really fascinating to get your impressions of the adaptions for posterity.

    ‘X Minus One’, the famous radio show of the ’50s, that you mentioned is also in the public domain. After the arrival of TV, radio was discarded and no copyright renewals were placed on material well into the ’70s in the US and the ’90s, in Britain for much of the BBC’s material. Only the advent of digitial has stopped this cultural purging.

    Most of the ‘X minus One’ shows can be downloaded with a click of the button, I have three different audio versions of ‘The Tunnel Under the World’, I can post them to you if you would like, plus some other adaptions.

    PS: the classics from the show, ‘Out of the Unknown’ are in my opinion…
    “The Machine Stops”
    “Level Seven”
    “Tunnel Under the World”
    “The Last Lonely Man”
    “This Body Is Mine”

    PS2: Five of your your stories have fallen into the public domain at Project Gutenberg, along with the likes of Phil Dick, Bob Sheckley, Damon Knight, Robert E. Howard, and a host of other giants…(the link is…http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/p#a25413)

    # The Day of the Boomer Dukes
    # The Hated
    # The Knights of Arthur
    # Pythias
    # The Tunnel Under The World

    your readers may enjoy them…..yours sincerely and with much respect, bobby