Thinking Through My Fingers

Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.

-- Isaac Asimov 

I remember an old Chicago newspaperman talking about a colleague who wrote with legendary speed. His colleague was a rewrite man who would take information phoned in from reporters in the field and turn it into news stories, often on tight deadline. This particular guy would imagine his fingers were attached to invisible wires that pulled words from his brain. The faster he typed, the faster the words would come, until the story was done. At the time (this was more than 40 years ago) my own writing was agonizingly slow. I worked as a corporate speechwriter in a PR shop with ex-newspapermen who talked about “banging out copy” as if the words rolled off an assembly line. I would have loved to pull words from my brain as fast as I could type them. But in those days I still imagined I was the author of the words that flowed, however fitfully, through my fingers.

Jack Kerouac famously wrote the first draft of On the Road by inserting a roll of shelf paper into his typewriter so he wouldn’t waste time putting in individual sheets of writing paper as he blazed away at top speed. This laid him open to a vicious put-down from Truman Capote. “That’s not writing," he sneered, "it’s typing.” I first read On the Road as a teenager and had admired its hyperkinetic style. Rereading the book when I was older, I was inclined to think Capote might have had a point. Nevertheless, I longed to write with similar abandon.

Writing is a physical act. Your fingers have to move across the page or across a keyboard. Or, as in the case of Jean-Dominique Bauby, you have to blink your left eyelid to signal to a transcriber which letter to write down as you dictate a memoir about your life after suffering a stoke that has left you almost totally paralyzed. Without movement of some kind, the words remain locked away. You will never be able to see what you think, at least not on the page.

Writers sometimes will say they write in order to know what they think. This may seem nonsensical to non-writers, who assume that thought must precede the act of writing. While this is true, the writer may not know what the words mean until he writes them down and then begins to pursue a train of thought. A good example is the line, “For the Snark was a Boojum, you see!” that popped into Lewis Carroll’s head while he was out taking a walk. He wrote it down without understanding what it meant. More words followed a few days later, and Carroll realized he had the stanza of a poem about someone who had “softly and suddenly vanished away.” But who was this someone, and what was the Snark that turned out to be a Boojum? Carroll set to work to find out, and over the next year or two produced a 141-stanza nonsense poem entitled “The Hunting of the Snark,” which ends with the line that first came to him while he was out on his walk.

Carroll, whose fondness for word play and puzzles was well known, claimed there were no hidden meanings in his work – or if there were, he didn’t know it. "I'm very much afraid I didn't mean anything but nonsense,” he wrote to a friend. “Still, you know, words mean more than we mean to express when we use them; so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.” Eventually the writer may discover he is merely an instrument in a process that neither begins nor ends with him – no less an instrument than the pen in his hands or the keyboard beneath his fingertips but more an instrument than the ultimate source. The words are his in the sense that they flow through him rather than through someone else. But who knows where they come from?

The ancient Greeks believed the source of inspiration could be traced to the muses, of whom there were nine, all daughters of Zeus and each specializing in one of the arts or sciences. This idea, in one form or another, carried straight through to the Romantic poets in the 19th century. More recently, we have looked to the unconscious as the source of inspiration. Either way, the essential act of creation takes place offstage, apart from conscious mental activity. Thus, an author like Lewis Carroll can state that his own intention in writing a poem may not be the final word on the subject, since the words he puts down on paper may mean more than he thinks they mean. Any writer worth his salt understands that the act of writing is not just thinking things up. It is an act of discovery.

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