Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Do you have time to think?

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

--William Deresiewicz




The complete text of Mr. Deresiewicz's remarks
to the plebe class at West Poiont is here in The American Scholor

19 comments:

Sara said...

I LOVE this! I teach yoga and even my students often rush through their yoga practices! Jeez - if you can't slow down for yoga, for thinking, for a brief, fleeting second to catch your breath and collect your thoughts (let alone write them down!) what do you have?!

w8lessopr8r said...

What he says later in this talk is equally important, especially for the "millenial generation" cadets (& future Army leaders) at my alma mater:
"So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.
Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today…They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today."

Natalie Zaman said...

This was something I really needed to read today... Thanks much! :)

Joelle said...

That's the whole point of my Red Hair articles. I've gotten emails from people mad at me because I said having a dead mother in a YA novel is pretty common (as is the red haired best friend). What they didn't get is I was saying, that is everyone's first solution for getting a parent out of the way. Think harder! Slow down!

A3Writer said...

Thank you! This is so awesome. I'm stealing it for my own students.

Mark Fenger said...

This is exactly why I avoid any kind of mobile life-sucker. I think iPhones and their kin are one of the greatest contributors to the dumbing down of modern society. Too many people simply cannot abide a few minutes of boredom, waiting in line, on the bus, or even walking (or worse, driving or biking), and immediately turn to their mobile mind-leech.

I know some feel that they need it for their work, but most who have them become addicted to that connectivity, and fail to give their minds enough room to wander.

There was a good radio program on the CBC on this topic a while back, it's a hot topic for researchers, and the evidence is very strong that these devices do more to harm productivity than help, and they appear to be especially harmful to creativity in children.

Lauren said...

That's so true. First thoughts are usually cliches. You can't settle on a word. You gotta keep working it.

Stephsco said...

Like what @Sara said about yoga, I think "not thinking" is increasingly problematic in our culture. So many of us, myself included at times, are so busy being busy, we aren't really aware of what we're doing in the present. What I hate to see most is kids who are pushed into busy, when they're carted from one activity to another and not allowed time to just exist with out the noise of something planned, or TV, internet etc. I know that's somewhat of a losing battle, but I have friends who make that a priority in their parenting to let kids be kids without over structuring their lives. I've actually learned from them to take time for myself in my own life. I think we're often made to feel guilty - especially as women (and moreso as mothers) if we aren't doing something every waking hour.

Rick Anderson said...

Writing fast is like eating fast before you get full.

Margaret Young said...

Why do I automatically assume you're trying to tell us something about the quality of contest entries so far...

Jaimie said...

This makes me feel better that it took me 4 years to write my first novel, and it's shaping up to be 4 years for my second. On the 2nd year now.

Elissa M said...

This post is excellent.

It does seem like too many people are afraid to stop and think. They have to constantly have something going on in the background, or multiple somethings, while they're busy busy busy doing something else.

How often does anyone take the time to just be still for a few minutes? How many people "don't have the time" to just stop, sit, and contemplate their surroundings (let alone contemplate any deep thoughts)?

As an artist as well as a writer, I find I do my best work when I slow down.

Beth said...

This exactly describes the way I write.

I've always been envious of those writers who could produce something both good and original without going through this process. I sometimes felt there was something wrong with me.

Now I don't feel stupid anymore.

Stephanie said...

I so needed this post. I'm in the middle of revisions and it's taking forever because I spend most of my time staring out the window just thinking things through. Thanks so much, now I don't feel so bad!

Sarah said...

"A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people"

Well, that's comforting. :)

Dale Bishop said...

That is way too subjective to take seriously and I'll pass on that cup of Kool Aid. Writing is a different process for everyone. If you're slow, no big thing. And if you're fast, in today's competitive environment, you have a slight upper hand. There's no way to measure quality against the amount of time it takes to write. A lot of these old authors were drunks who couldn't even function.

Criticus said...

Beautiful!

Jaleh D said...

I don't feel so bad about my rate of writing now. Though I still wish my first drafts would flow a little quicker.

Sounds like there are more of us slow writers than I thought. :)

Kristin Laughtin said...

I marvel at writers who can crank out several books a year, as I average about one per annum, and sometimes more if there are multiple rounds of revision. This makes me feel better about my pace (even if, as Dale said above, pace vs. quality is a subjective judgement).