It’s only Wednesday, but this week feels eight days long already. I finished The Signature of All Things on Monday night, and I am endeavoring to get my thoughts together about it. With luck, you’ll see a post about it tomorrow night or Friday–Saturday, if my schedule becomes too crowded and there’s no time for thought. At the moment, however, my brow is furrowed in the same way that James Thurber’s was whenever he–frequently–wandered without aim through his house during a dinner party. “Don’t worry about James,” his wife would tell their guests. “He’s just writing.”
That’s true; that’s absolutely true. Writers write in their heads all the time. It’s an essential practice, or nearly so. What’s being written in our minds (or, at least, in my mind) is not specific words and phrases, but structure. We think through and block out the structure of a chapter or an essay in much the same way as a director blocks out the movement of actors in a play.
If specific words and phrases we want to use do come to mind, most of us will have a pen and a notepad handy, or a scrap of paper. And God help us if we don’t, because if we don’t have a way of writing thoughts down, the odds are very good that whatever insight has come to us, whatever perfect expression we’ve found, will soon be lost. Many writers have mastered the discipline of getting up and recording that 2:00 a.m. revelation on a bedside notepad or whatever, but not I. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve lost an idea, a phrase or a sentence because I lacked the means or the discipline to write it down. But I can tell you that about ten times in my writing life I’ve lost the perfect expression in a column or an essay because I neglected to save the work on my computer. When the cast of The Lord of The Rings revealed on the commentary track to The Return of the King that they had to re-do the perfect take of Frodo’s farewell to Middle Earth because a lens was out of focus, I knew exactly how they felt, and I sympathized. There are some perfect moments that have been lost to us, and we’ll never get them back. I believe–totally without evidence to back it up–that a great many life-changing, culture-changing ideas have also been lost to us, simply because the person who had them did not write them down, or did not have the opportunity to do so.
My only defense against such a calamity is to take as much time with a piece as I can. Even when I’m writing on a deadline–as I was when I blogged about Houston Astros baseball games every night–I take whatever time I need to finish and do a good job. Sometimes that means, as it meant in my baseball days, that I will not finish until several hours after I begin, but the effort to think things through, to write in my head before going to the keyboard, has often paid enormous dividends in reader satisfaction and in my sense of pride in my own work.