“People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.”
Attributed to Montesquieu
This mild but disturbing aperçu brought me up short. It had the same effect on Arthur Krystal,* and perhaps on you. How true it is – at least for my mental habit. Most of the time I live and talk on automatic pilot, using the same stock repertoire of actions and phrases that I’ve been using all my life. Thought is not necessary, unless I try to solve a crossword or puzzle out some new outrage committed by my computer.
Whenever I take the two-hour train trip to and from New York I am surrounded by people who talked loudly and incessantly to each other or (more often) to some disembodied entity hiding inside a cell phone. I must have been an unwilling listener to hundreds of conversations and monologues on that train, and none of them made any sense whatsoever. They were (to use a good old-fashioned word) just blather, empty words, ungrammatical stream of consciousness noise. No communication was taking place, except the kind of communication that occurs when one monkey chatters to another – a kind of verbal grooming or exchange of recognition signals.
It was depressing to realize that I often do exactly the same thing. Faced with a social situation, or an unexpected phone call or an encounter in the post office, I can blather as well as anyone. Not a single thought enters my head while I am doing it.
But when I sit down to write, as Montaigne said, I begin to think. The rusty gears of my brain grind into action and (as has often been pointed out to me by my nearest and dearest) I disappear into a state of abstraction where I don’t want to talk to anybody. This is exactly why writing is so hard. It’s not the writing it’s the thinking that produces keyboard avoidance and writer’s block.
The reverse side of this phenomenon, as Krystal points out, is that writers are often poor speakers. Our literary skills don’t always translate into verbal skills, perhaps because the thinking part of our brains is reserved for or used up by the first.
As someone who works in radio, where speech and writing (and, occasionally, thought) come together, I found Krystal’s speculations fascinating. His essays are models of complex yet completely friendly writing, and they must have required a lot of thought.
* Except When I Write by Arthur Krystal. Quotation attributed by Edgar Allan Poe.