By David Shapiro

Saturday, March 15, 1997

Writing a book
by winking one eye

We carried one of the most amazing stories I ever read last week about a paralyzed French journalist who winked out a 150-page book with his left eye.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, former chief editor of Elle magazine in Paris, could not speak or move anything but his left eye since suffering a massive stroke 15 months ago. He dictated his book to an assistant one letter at a time.

She would point to letters in the alphabet and he would wink once or twice for "yes" or "no." The assistant estimated it took hundreds of thousands of winks to finish the book.

A few days after "Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon" ("The Diving Suit and the Butterfly") was published, Bauby died.

As a writer, I was awestruck by Bauby's achievement. It's the equivalent of playing 150 holes of golf tapping a bowling ball around the course with a putter. It's like doing a triathlon that includes a 26-mile crawl on your belly, a swim to Guam and a bike ride to the moon.

To see how difficult it is, I winked out this sentence. It took 997 winks and nearly 20 minutes to get those 11 words on paper. That's more time than it took me to write the rough draft for the rest of the column on my word processor. My eye is still sore a day later. Bauby's eyelid muscle must have grown to the size of a cantaloupe by time he finished.

Even more amazing than the physical feat was the mental discipline and concentration it must have taken get the book from Bauby's head to his stenographer's notepad.

Most professional writers I know whine if the "a" key on their word processor sticks a little. We get frustrated away from the office if we have to rough it and write by hand instead of using a keyboard. We simply can't write fast enough with a pencil to keep up with our thoughts.

There's nothing more discouraging than losing a good idea because you couldn't write it down fast enough to capture it.

Bauby had to plan the structure of his work and plot out every word in his mind without the help of written notes or outlines. Then he had to remember his words through the tedious dictation process. He had to get it exactly how he wanted it the first time. He got no second chances, no cut-and-paste revisions.

When I winked out my little sentence, I had trouble mustering the concentration to stay focused on the letter I wanted, much less the word or the structure of the sentence. I kept getting lost in daydreams and winking past the letter I was looking for. It was a horribly boring and repetitive process. I would rather have been in a dentist's chair.

Bauby winked six hours a day through 29 chapters.

Most impressive was Bauby's will. He had something to say about what it's like to live with an alert mind in a paralyzed body. His desire to tell his story was so powerful that he put himself through a writing ordeal and kept himself alive long enough to see it finished.

The Associated Press described the result as "a poetical and highly imaginative voyage" that has received good reviews and sold well in Paris.

I'm going to be sure to get a copy of "Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon" as soon as somebody translates it into English. If no translation is forthcoming, I may have to learn French to read what this incredible man wanted so badly to tell us.

Learning a new language couldn't possibly be any more difficult than it was for Bauby to write this book.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at
Volcanic Ash runs every Saturday in the Star-Bulletin.

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