Aug 25, 2017

Writing, Fast and Slow

A week ago, when I was commuting back to home, I had a brilliant idea for an essay. I thought of an introductory narration and as I can recall, it sounded good. I didn’t write anything that day but attempted to in the next. Unsurprisingly, the clarity had vanished. I couldn’t even finish a few lines—and even they weren’t delightful to read.

Why was something that was effortless a day before became a laborious struggle?

It wasn’t obvious why that happened. I attributed it to the unaccounted difficulty in ideating vs. trying to do it. But, a few days back I found the actual reason. I was blocked because I was overanalyzing everything. Here’s how I wrote:

I would write a sentence, rethink it, and write it in another way. Then, I would read it aloud to make sure it sounds good; if unsatisfied, I would repeat the whole process. I would, then, reiterate it for the paragraph. When the rewording, rethinking, and reading got exhausting, I would give up because a simple paragraph took ten minutes to construct.

Of course, it is part of editing that I have learned over the years: to snip words that are not needed; to make sure that everything sounds coherent to yourself. But in this quest for perfection, I was inhibiting the stream of ideas that make up the essay.

When I am walking down the road, I don’t have the tools to refine the story, and ironically, that is the very reason why the best ideas flow so freely. My process was inhibiting a good story because it overemphasised impeccable writing.

Two Modes of Writing

In the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains the eccentricities of human behaviour with his two-system theory. It suggests that the human mind has two mechanisms of thinking: System 1 (fast, emotional, and intuitive) and System 2 (slow, deliberate, and analytical). Although it is hard to classify something complex as creativity in either of the two, we can safely assume that most good ideas emerge from involuntary thinking (System 1).

The crucial part of writing is balancing both modes. The creative fast mode lets us think our best ideas. The corrective slow mode lets us refine it. If I invoke the slow mode too soon, I am inhibiting the very ideas that make up the essay, not to mention, squandering time in over-analysis.

Many writers underscore the importance of planning the outline and the ending before writing, but frankly, I never have an absolute idea how I am going to finish the whole thing. In the beginning, the idea is fuzzy and abstract, but when I race through writing it (anyway), things start to come effortlessly. Writing one thing leads to thinking another, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t written the first. Naturally, not everything makes sense, but that can be taken care of in the slow mode.

Utilising the two modes to solve the writer’s block is simple. First, write down everything you have in mind without wondering how to improve it. The goal here is to throw everything on the screen. Beware of any interruptions that sway you from the goal. Don’t check social media, or take that long break, or even bother with any research that might be relevant to the story. When you’re done, let the work stay on your hard drive until it’s ready to be edited the next day.

The next day when you reopen the file the work would feel messy. What’s not lost in the messiness are cues for a good story. During editing, you will add more ideas that you thought in the meantime. It will probably take more than one session to finish but that couldn’t have happened had you not gone through the write-anything phase.

I used the same process for this essay. I was reading a NY Times article when this idea struck me. I dashed off the first 400 words in ten minutes. I added another 300 words the next day. The editing started an hour later which took two more sittings to finish. I am still way short of the thousand words target but considering that I also have a full-time job, I think I did fairly good.

I don’t feel writing a thousand words a day requires a Herculean effort. The first step is to get something on the paper. If you are a smart creative person, you will able to do that with a little hint of excitement for an idea. The crucial block is discipline.

After finishing this essay, I found that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 covers the same subject. This excerpt couldn’t have articulated it any better:

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus.

Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside.

You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.


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