All creative writers–including journalists– write to discover what they mean, not record what they already know. The cool idea that triggers a story doesn’t generate the story: improvisation does. Flannery O’Conner said that when she wrote Good Country People she didn’t know the Bible salesman was going to steal the woman’s wooden leg until a few sentences before it happened.
But before any of us write creatively, we learn to read books, which look as though they’ve been born in authoritative print. Then we told to outline essays before we write them. In other words–to think everything out in advance.
And even though education has gotten more progressive, when I spoke at my son’s politically-correct school (how I wanted to litter the playground with eco-unfriendly juice boxes), the teacher couldn’t get me out of the classroom fast enough when I showed kids the first sketch for a book, and then final chapters in galleys. (You mean you didn’t think all that before you wrote it? they kept asking.)
Thinking before you write is fodder for the inner critic, who can’t imagine a world that hasn’t been brought into existence without an outline. (Although I’d argue that outlines are their own perverse form of meta-improvisation.) For the inner critic, scenes must be in sequence and nothing can go unexplained. This is one reason writers feel compelled to explain the story as they go, glutting pages with exposition that tells and tells and tells and never shows.
We use language to organize the world and there’s no way to truck in language without thinking. But since the magic of language happens when it seems to flow from the world itself, rather than ideas about the world, writers are most productive drafts when they don’t think. (There is always time for thinking in revision.) Moments of not thinking comprise the paradoxical nature of writing and reading. Language is revealing a world we have never experienced before.
When I think about how not to think, I remember Lucky in Waiting for Godot, who made an outrageously nonsensical speech, freeing language from the burden of meaning. He spoke strings of nonsense, some of it grammatical. And, in fact, writing grammatical nonsense is a great way to lose self-consciousness and stop premature editing.
The rules are simple.
- the sentences must be grammatical. @. The words mustn’t link together in any consciously associative way. The brain automatically makes sense of grammatical language. Don’t worry if the words carry metaphoric weight or make sense after you’ve written them.
Here’s an example:
Although spoons create kymographic leaves, the undulating verve of the bracken riveted rice, and when the fuliginous failed, luminous clack vied looms with a sandwich, but the miracle mill raced on and a liver starch imported gibbour grommets. So the onerous futhark of climes unfurled. After the bombastic fungi filibustered the switchyard, imperilment dined. Ladder! Units! The potash massacre is electrolyzed.
There are many ways to write nonsense. You can look around the room and start with objects. (Be careful, though, that you don’t choose objects that are normally linked together—for instance, if you see a fork and a spoon on the table choose one. You are creating a random universe. You can also look up words in the dictionary. And if you look up words in different parts of the newspaper, you will begin to mix up words from completely different worlds. Calibration from a science article will join poach from the cooking section. Crepuscular from an article on cats will join bookrunner from the stock section.
There are various benefits to this exercise, especially if you do it for a couple of minutes a day. This is an easy exercise to do at the spur of the moment. For instance, the next time you’re talking to an interminably slow customer service person about an online banking problem and are placed on hold you can scribble some nonsense on a scrap of paper instead of looking at your phone. People experience several benefits to this exercise, among them discovering dialects they once spoke and finding images to use in writing that rise out of the nonsense. The most pervasive benefit, however, is that the inner critic, the inner editor, the inner thinker, the inner commenter and the inner anticipator begin to fade out of the writing process. All these inner-personae are backseat drivers concerned with getting to the end of a piece of writing using a sensible route. But when you give them the job of not making sense, they begin to work very hard to do this and when you sit down to write sense, they learn to stop talking.
This is an exercise you can’t fail at. The very worst that can happen is that you will make sense.