Monday, November 3, 2014

Where the Fingers Succeed

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can't imagine saying them to the people to whom I'm closest. Every once in a while I try to say them out loud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

          - Rebecca Solnit, from The Faraway Nearby, 64

I've been aware for a long time that I'm a different person on paper than I am in person. Or at least that my mind moves differently, and that what my mind serves up on paper is not the same as what comes out of my mouth when I'm in company. Perhaps it has something to do with pace: the words appear under my fingers one letter at a time, and as I type, I am frequently in free fall: I literally have no idea what is coming next, except that it is going to have to bear some relation to what has gone before. When I speak, I usually know what I am going to say; that's why I'm saying it. But when I write, I am most often writing my way into I know not what, which is, to me, sort of the point of writing: to find out both the what and the how. That's perhaps what William Stafford meant when he called writing "a reckless encounter with whatever comes along." This particular moment in this paragraph is a good example; I did not know even one minute ago that I would be writing these words in this way. (Nor did I  know that I would be citing the Stafford until I re-read what I had written earlier, at which point his phrase popped into my head, and I had to Google it to remember who had said it, and then I went back and stuck it in.) And so the writing proceeds, not in a strictly linear fashion, but in a kind of herky-jerky movement: forward, then back, then to the side, then back, then forward again. (*) There's a rhythm to it that changes as it goes along, a rhythm which includes pauses and changes of direction which are for the reader nowhere in evidence in the final product. One such pause is denoted by the asterisk. I had been typing along at a relatively even pace, and then became aware, as I approached the end of the sentence, that I had arrived at a fork in the road: there were a lot of places to go from there, and it took me some seconds during which I was NOT typing for my brain to register that fact and then choose (if choose is the right word, it was actually more of an impulse) to continue by addressing the topic of rhythm. (Another move, considered almost subliminally and discarded, might have been to address the way that the colons and the semicolons arrived in the preceding sentences, and how they influenced the unfolding of the thoughts. In which case I would have wound up citing not William Stafford, but Lewis Thomas, whose essay "On Punctuation" includes several passages that would have been apt.)
It's true that some of those same dynamics apply in conversation: one might begin to say something and then either swerve in mid-utterance or suddenly have an even better idea and leave the opening gambit behind. But it's harder to track those moves when you are in conversation, whereas when you are writing you have more time to process exactly what you are doing and bend the direction of the thought more deliberately. It would be much more difficult to simultaneously speak and monitor my speaking than it is to write and simultaneously monitor my writing. I'm sure there are some speakers who can do that to some degree, but for most of us if we want to see ourselves in action as speakers we need to get someone to videotape us and break it down in retrospect. Whereas in writing we can engage more immediately via (longish pause here to consider appropriate phrasing) self-reflection in process. 
That phrase, as it happens, is one of the more helpful definitions of critical thinking that I have run across, one that I have often shared with my students. It might be said that what I am doing here, in this essay, is to attempt to think critically about the questions that Solnit raises above, and that I am engaging in writing in order precisely because writing, as Solnit suggests, allows me to consider those questions more deliberately and in greater detail than I would be able to do if I were just to think about them, or talk about them. One of the core tenets of my teaching, such as it was, is that writing is the most powerful self-instructional tool we have as human beings. For all the reasons that Solnit suggests, and more.

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