Last night during his press conference, President Obama was asked why he didn't respond faster, publicly, about a specific piece of the AIG debacle. Obama said, "Because I like to know what I'm talking about before I speak" --which was maybe the most useful takeaway of the night.
Thinking before speaking – an interesting concept. Being informed, gathering knowledge, and knowing what one is talking about before opening one's mouth – not exactly a new idea, but perhaps one politicians don't ordinarily follow.
What about writers? Do you tend to write first and think about it later? Or do you like to know exactly what you are going to write before touching the keyboard? Does it depend on what you are writing? What's the writer's equivalent of knowing what I'm talking about before I speak (on the page)?
Over the years, I've come across writing instructors, MFA faculty, editors, authors and other writers firmly in one camp or the other. One well-published nonfiction writer I know insists one should never sit down to write unless all the points, and the narrative arc, as well as the closing idea, are all firmly in mind. Another equally successful author relies on the writing process itself to show her where she wants to go.
Annie Dillard says writing is pretty simple, it's just about putting the bricks in order, one on top of the other. But I agree with the MFA professor I know who once quipped, yes but first I have to mix the mud and make the bricks!
For a short essay, say in the 500–2000 word vicinity, I find I do usually have a pretty well-defined sense of my point and how I'll get there. If not, then I will work on getting to a clear idea of what I'm going to say before I write. This way, I don't tend to over-write quite so much and then have to deal with a lot of pruning later. Since most of these short essays are on tight deadlines, shortening the revision and editing time is useful. On the other hand, I’m an advocate of writing, writing, writing – and then putting aside the "unused" portions for later, when it seems to find its way into something else.
An entirely different approach prevails when I am writing a longer essay or piece of memoir. Then, I want to explore my ideas on the page, to play with them, move them around, and see where they might lead me. In a general way I might know beforehand "what I am talking about," but as a writer I also know that there are infinite ways to "speak" about it, and the more I experiment with all those possible ways, the more likely it is that the reader will know what I'm talking about too.
For memoir and the longer literary essay, I often don't know exactly what I want to say until I get through at least one full very rough draft, which tends to be many times longer than I intend. Yes, that does mean I will often write 10- or 12-thousand words to get a 4,000 or 6,000 word piece. Perhaps a more skilled or experienced writer can skip this part of the process; I can't. The fun (and I think, the discipline) of writing nonfiction for me is seeing what emerges out of my personal experience once I put it on the page and take the time and patience to let the work evolve.
Politicians know too well that making public remarks before all the facts are in can be disastrous. And yet many of them, presidents included, do it anyway. Perhaps it's possible that Obama the President is listening to what Obama the writer has learned. And wouldn't it be refreshing to know that what comes out of a president's mouth actually had time to take up residence in his brain for a while?
Still, that doesn't mean I like the time it takes to know what I’m talking about before I write the final version. I'm impatient by nature; just ask my kids (and husband, mother, hairdresser). Yet when I do skip this step – what I call letting it marinate – because I'm in a hurry or tired of revisions or mentally need to move on, and "go public" with a half-baked manuscript, I always get into trouble.
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