Copyright Thaisa Frank
Writers generally write to discover what they mean, not to record what they already know. The cool idea that triggers a story doesn’t generate a story. Improvisation does. If there is no surprise for the writer, there will be no surprise for the reader. Flannery O’Conner, said that when she wrote 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.
Writing is a complicated, subliminal conversation every writer develops in a unique way, and a conversation that no writer is that aware of.
In other words: It isn’t the same as thinking.
But before any of us write creatively, we have learned to associate writing and reading with thinking, starting with learning to write and culminating with reading and discussing books . The books themselves have the authority of publication (anything looks better in print), and look as though they emerged that way. Then we are assigned essays and told that we must outline—essentially thinking everything in advance. So it’s natural that writing of any kind is associated with thinking and that even when writers know it doesn’t work that way all kinds of thoughts intrude. “I should write the opening scene first because you have to write in sequential order.” Or: “Wait! I can’t mention the grandmother’s scar because I haven’t gone into detail about the accident when she was twelve, fifty years ago.”
Another alternative is to imitate writers we admire. After all, they have been published.
When I think about how not to think and how not to imitate, I remember Lucky, who made an outrageously nonsensical speech in Waiting for Godot, freeing language from the burden of meaning. He spoke strings of nonsense, some of it grammatical, and writing grammatical nonsense is a great way to lose self-consciousness and stop premature editing.
The rules are simple. 1. the sentences must be grammatical. 2. 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, the inner imitator 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 logical, pre-planned 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.