Writing Is Thinking

There is this term people use to refer to writers: “wordsmith.” I’ve never liked it. It doesn’t ring true. Words are not really the raw material a writer is “smithing.” A real-life smith, a blacksmith, is working with metal as the raw material—heating it, hammering it, shaping it. What is the comparable raw material for the writer? Answer: It is thoughts. A writer would more fittingly be called a “thoughtsmith.”

[About this piece: I am exploring 10 or so simple mottoes that have helped me as a writer. Here is the preceding post in this series.]

Stephen King had a better analogy. Actually, an analogy so true it borders on being literally factual. Writing is telepathy, he observes in his book, On Writing. What the writer does is to think a thought so completely that she can reproduce that thought in the mind of the reader, a stranger she might never meet. It is not instantaneous telepathy like that of Jean Grey; it has a delayed effect and requires the page, post, book, or essay as the transmission medium. But allowing for this material component of the telepathy spell, is telepathy not what we have performed when our writing succeeds?

Writing is thinking. Mental construction. This is what it is. Writing is not fussing with commas or subject-verb agreement; this is part of the work, but it is part of the very final stage of the work. The much larger share of the effort and the investment in writing is in the thinking, and this point tends to be unseen. Those who do not think of themselves as writers fail to see it. Those who do think of themselves as writers fail to see it as well.

Start with those who don’t think of themselves as writers, those whose efforts are directed into other crafts. That writing involves and requires thinking is hard to appreciate because all of us think we are thinking all of the time. We think we are doing it more often than we really do. In fact, we do not think as much or as thoroughly as we imagine. I do not. To write is to think the thought all the way through, think it so thoroughly it can be reproduced in the stranger’s mind. But when I am not writing, that is not what I do; here is what I do instead: 

I pick up pieces of thinking that outwardly seem pleasing. I pick up impressions like subassemblies that I plug into the machinery of my awareness. These ideas or components of ideas are everywhere around us, particularly in the subassemblies I perceive others near me picking up as well. If it sounds like I am referring to where one’s politics, philosophy, or fashion sense comes from, I am, but I am also referring to what we observe and what we note out of what we observe. Even if I visit a strange place in order to see that place with my own eyes, still I am prone to adopt another observer’s reasonable-sounding interpretation of what I have seen.

There is nothing wrong with this. Thinking is a type of effort. We naturally are conservative about effort, because we each have only so much energy to give. If I need a screwdriver and the one at hand seems to work, I will use this rather than trudging to the garage to see if I have a better one. And if I need a thought, I will pick up a preexisting one that seems serviceable rather than constructing one of my own.

But not the writer. The writer has not written if she does this. The writer is the one who thinks. The writer is the one who makes the effort to construct a thought: a thought that may or may not be new, but a thought that is able to stand on its own as something altogether complete. The completeness is what is routinely missing. Within almost all the rest of our so-called thinking (I do this and I believe you do it, too), we have assembled our paradigms and opinions at least in part out of prepackaged ideas, using feeling rather than reason to fill the gaps. We feel as though our thinking is fully developed, fully explored, fully realized—but this mishmash we compile within our minds for our own sake is telepathy that will not transmit. As a writer, if I am going to give you an idea, a thought, or a theme, I need to fill the gaps better than this. I need to replace the subassemblies with components that make sense together and fit one another well. Penning the words and sentences, then, is not really the writing, or not the essence of it. The penning or keyboarding is the fitting of words to the form that is first fashioned through the writer’s thinking—that is, through note-taking, drafting, and wrestling with the ideas through mulling either at the keyboard or away.

In the 1700s, in the presence of its author, the Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh received a copy of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. While holding a thick volume of the great work, he said, “Always scribble, scribble, scribble. Eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

Gibbon must have been nonplussed. Or I would have been. Scribbling is not the work. How can such a point go unseen?

Yet as I also said, the writer can fail to see it as well. We want the scribbling. We want to skip ahead to this. Paragraphs composed and pages piling up feel like output, feel like progress. And they are. But if this part of the work is not flowing, is not happening relatively freely, or is wandering and seems to have lost its bearing, then the answer might be that there is more thinking to be done. In this paragraph you are reading, I came to that. I hit a pause where more thinking was needed; the thinking I had was incomplete. You can’t see this, because all you have is the finished work, but this current paragraph stalled on a point of uncertainty. I knew the first sentence needed to restate the point that writers fail to see that writing is thinking, but I didn’t know clearly what I wanted the paragraph to do from there. I went elsewhere to sit with this problem before returning here to scribble, and in both the sitting and the scribbling, I was equally doing the work.

Some of the thinking is subtracting—letting go and shedding some of the components we carry. Writing is thinking; it is thinking the thought completely, but that also means disregarding what does not wholly belong to that single, complete, coherent thought. When I go too far with imagining that the work of writing is composing, I try to stretch the scribbling farther by getting everything into the composition that might pertain to it. This often means honoring every part of the notes I took in my research. But the notes are not the point, of course. Somewhere within those notes, an important idea or understanding began to take shape for you. This is what your writing will be about. This thought you found—this is what your writing should be about, and indeed, this thinking, this discovery of insight, is what your writing really is. The notes are the seed and the soil. You began writing once the idea or understanding began to grow from them, and the writing continues as you pursue that thought and leave the notes behind. 

This is a way to joy. In your writing, I hope you experience this. The writing is work, to be sure. It is frustrating; sometimes the thought will not be smithed. But it is also the work that takes place nearest the center of our being—closest to home, in a sense. The mind is where we live. Thought is the experience of life. “I think therefore I am”; writing is thinking, and thinking is being. No other work that people do is so privileged as this! Here is the smithing performed in the hearth fire that burns within the very experience of being you.