Writing by the think-system

We’ve got sentences, folks. Terrible, terrible sentences—and that almost rhymes with menaces . . .

Veryln Klinkenborg on thinking up sentences.

Your job as a writer is making sentences.

Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head.

In your head.

Did no one ever tell you this?

Several Short Sentences About Writing

Actually more than several sentences . . .

In his intense little essay August 13 in The New York Times promoting his new book, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Veryln Klinkenborg clears his throat for three paragraphs, takes a swipe at composition teachers, and unveils how beginners might learn to write. He’s a stylist I admire, so I drew near.

His essay starts in the fourth paragraph when he remarks on the chatter inside human heads. Here’s an idea, he says, give your mind some work: memorize a little poetry or prose: “Then play those passages over and over again in your memory. You now have in your head something that is identifiably ‘language,’ not merely thoughts that somehow seem unlinguistic.”

Check. The next step:

Now try turning a thought into a sentence. This is harder than it seems because first you have to find a thought. They may seem scarce because nothing in your education has suggested that your thoughts are worth paying attention to. Again and again I see in students, no matter how sophisticated they are, a fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind. They turn to it as though it were a mailbox. They take a quick peek, find it empty and walk away.

But how many people want to think? Surely some do learn in school.  (Having since read his book, I see that his beef is with institutions but goes beyond them to human mediocrity and burdensome toe-the-line group messages.) Others who want or need to think train themselves. Seven years ago when I started writing a whole book for the first time, it was fun and I was dumb—I wrote a first draft of 500 pages—but sometimes it was truly hard. One of my profound insights was that writing is difficult because it’s concentrated thought (fatuous sounding to me now, but Klinkenborg says the same thing). Long-term focused thinking isn’t easy because it’s seldom needed in daily life.

(Incidentally, I’ve noticed that after a while I can’t tell my inspired prose from the stuff I had to gut out. Mostly anyway. Klinkenborg says this, too.)

He continues with his think-system advice for baby writers (of any age, naturally):

Because you’re writing nothing down, it may seem as though you’re not writing at all. But you’re building confidence, an assurance that when you’re in the place where sentences come from—deep in the intermingling of thought and words—you’re in a place where good things usually happen. . . .

I’m repeatedly asked how I write, what my ‘process’ is. My answer is simple: I think patiently, trying out sentences in my head. That is the root of it. What happens on paper or at the keyboard is only distantly connected. The virtue of working this way is that circumstances — time, place, tools—make no difference whatsoever. All I need is my head. All I need is the moments I have.

Reading this, I thought of what a fiction writer told me last winter. Don’t confuse typing with writing. His writing—the imagining of scenes—happens the day and night before he goes to the keyboard. Now comes Klinkenborg to recommend essentially the same thing for nonfiction. There’s obvious merit in it, but we all get words on the page differently. Still, if Tiger Woods can rebuild his winning swing (at least two times), can’t a writer learn a new process? Verlyn’s perchance?

I’ve noticed that my writing goes better when I think about it the night before and when I quit the next day knowing where to resume. I’ve also noticed that in the process of working on a long piece I naturally do what he suggests, think up sentences. Or, rather, find sentences arising.

Earlier this summer I heard Joe Blair, author of the celebrated memoir By the Iowa Sea, tell an NPR interviewer that he had to learn a new writing method because he has only one hour a day free. He’s a heating-cooling contractor, as well as a husband and father. But he can think as he drives around and some at night. Blair, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, types like blue blazes during his allotted hour. I bet he pounds out three or four pages—maybe six. He probably doesn’t polish as he goes (but more on that, per Klinkenborg, later).

So, to review. Trust your mind and use it. Give it work. Train yourself to think and write away from the keyboard.

Next: My encounter with Veryln Klinkenborg as he aired his this think-system six years ago.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, NOTED, syntax, working method

13 responses to “Writing by the think-system

  1. As usual, Richard, your post is thoughtful and well worth reading. I’m especially interested in your remark that you later can’t distinguish between the sections that really worked you over (as you worked them out) and the sections that you did easily. I find the same thing happens to me. On the one hand, I’m always thankful that there’re no nasty seams showing; on the other, I worry about why not! Of course, I’m not writing non-fiction, but good writing is good writing, to a certain extent. And yours, as far as I’ve encountered it on your website, is very good indeed.

  2. rachaelhanel

    I admit that I do little “thinking” about my sentences. I find my best writing comes while I’m reading a writer I admire. I try to let the prose sink in. But now I’m inspired to pay more attention to the times I’m thinking about writing.

    • Rachael, reading seems primary—even Klinkenborg seems to agree—that deep engagement.

      When you are working on a piece, do not sentences arise away from the keyboard?

      • Great question, Richard. I think I’ve been so conditioned to writing at the keyboard that I rarely come up with anything away from my computer. All the more reason to read Klinkenborg!

  3. Richard, your first paragraph is nothing short of delicious.

    I read Mr. Klinkenborg’s essay, and was vaguely annoyed by his tone until I got to the final paragraph, which brought a smile.

    That “dark, cavernous place” is the place where I am most comfortable in the world. I’m lucky to be married to someone who needs silence and solitude as much as I do. In a way, we’ve created an “exo-head” of our home, where thoughts have an opportunity to complete themselves without interuption. It’s quite a place.

  4. Like others above, I have come to rely on you for refreshing approaches to this writing life of ours. I too am intrigued by thinking more about thinking itself and by recognizing the value of the work that takes place in the mind and even away from the desk.

    I’m having to slog through the creation of a first draft with only little flashes of the initial inspiration that first drew me to memoir. This post offers hope that this part of the process is necessary.I’ve been a sprinter all my life. Now I’m in a marathon, hoping that the mind and the body will bring me home.

  5. Thanks for drawing my attention to this piece/book, Richard. I find sentences forming when I’m walking, usually three miles around the lake near our house. But if I don’t write them down immediately when I get home, they’re gone. It has to do with a voice starting up in my head, which is different from thoughts – it’s a voice that is composing, writing, and speaking to someone, the mysterious “reader.” As always, your voice is so worth listening to!

    • Paulette, forgetting the sentences is why that fiction writer I allude to always has a dry-erase board with him–even in the shower! He said he writes just as well in middle age, but the ideas come only ONCE. Now Verlyn, he’s a horse of a different color. He says they are not gone. Like, really?

      • What a hoot–the image of toting a dry erase board around all the time. I do find that I scribble sentences down on scraps of paper when I’m working on something, usually in the morning while drinking coffee. Love V.K.– did you mention him earlier, Richard? I think I got turned on to him by something you wrote. Or maybe it was an earlier Times article, about ten pages of “Several Short Sentence About Writing.” Gem after gem. I loved this: “Just try out some sentences. Your’e holding an audition. Many sentences will try out. One gets the part.” Keeps it in perspective.

      • Jan,

        I posted before his interview on the “glory of nonfiction” with Flak magazine:


        That fiction writer even has written on his windshield with his dry-erase marker! He has a board mounted in the shower. I got the sense this was about ideas rather than sentences per se but I’m not sure.

        I’ll try to find his Times excerpt—missed it. If you have the link, please do share.

  6. BTW, Richard, love the “We’ve got sentences” picture at the start! Makes me feel like writing — or maybe marching…