Further into my writing life than I'd care to admit and still unpublished, I sat in a Houston café and read a pair of pieces I'd penned, one a short story, "Disconnect," that I'd been hammering at for years, the other a journal entry, barely an essay, that I'd written in a single hour one afternoon. And I was shocked to find that the piece I'd whipped out in a flurry was more fluid and complete and even more polished than the story I'd hovered over on a hundred different days. Understanding the reasons why would transform my approach to writing.
"Disconnect" concerns a man annoyed by a woman chewing gum across a café, who, he fails to realize, is flirting with him. The piece wasn't without (some) depth and humor. But it stuttered, bore the marks of having been written while I was in too many moods. One sentence was lapidary, the next a sketch, the details and ideas intermittently jammed together and then too loose, which gave the story arc a sense of having gaps.
But the sheer ease of composing the journal entry—with no blueprint—made clear I'd engaged some deeper creative dimension. The difference didn't hinge on fiction versus nonfiction. "Disconnect" hewed to my own world, with embellishments. The journal entry, with its disparate impressions of West Africa and my family in Texas, seemed to have tapped what we might call the native-language instinct, the force in the brain that works almost without conscious effort, as one speaks, to put the emphasis of a sentence in the right place. At its best, speech taps the biological ease of good cadence, of stressing the right verb, of constructing a scene or argument almost without conscious heed to grammar or form. The absence of this force is clear in speaking second languages, when we become like children playing with a finite number of blocks, hoping to build something recognizable. Why had I written "Disconnect" as though bumbling through French?
Research has found that "written- and spoken-language systems are considerably independent" in stroke victims (L.A. Times, 5/13/2015). If the biology is different for written language, then it calls on parts of the brain less evolved for that task. Deeper by many thousands of years are the evolutionary roots of the spoken word. Best of all would be to engage both systems at once.
A clue to the problems with my prose lay in the poor quality of first drafts I'd thumped out on keyboards compared to those I'd written by hand. The difficulty of inking words on paper meant I didn't move the pen until a sentence was complete in my head. But the cursor, blinking on the precipice of blank space, was a cudgel that demanded to be moved across the screen. The ease and rhythm of typing induced the need for a constant tap tap tap, which upset the natural process of sentence construction. While writing on the computer, I'd attempted to work out content and syntax simultaneously when they needed to be handled sequentially. In everyday speech, it's atypical to describe things as they happen. A sense or idea precedes the outward use of words. Sentences given over to the dictates of the cursor emerged as though happening live, which made for dull, choppy language. "He
looked up from the table
a woman across the café
with a pimple on
" Knowing the details first allows the sentence to form in more interesting ways: "Tired, unable to concentrate enough to read, he stared at the mouth of a woman smacking gum." There was no need to cast off the word processor; I just needed to bring to it the care of writing longhand. And I vowed thereafter not to type a sentence (or at least a good clause) until my brain had settled on its form.
In another café, in a different year, I overheard a writer mention the importance of editing aloud, standard advice I thought hokey for its incompatibility with working anywhere but behind a closed door. Later, though, reading aloud as I edited, I found that I could focus the language instinct on an existing draft by performing, in a way, that I could measure what I'd written against what I heard, perhaps merging the power of the dual systems of the brain. Each draft became notes for a new, impromptu, and thankfully-private performance, the existing lines raw material for a reworked narrative. Reading aloud forced me to write through the story, mimicking the experience of the reader. I couldn't grind away at one paragraph for hours and leave the next for another day. By sweeping the imagination up into the narrative flow, the hybrid approach more often helped a story arrive somewhere unplanned.
And, craving additional distance from the cursor, I decided to stand while writing, to give myself the freedom to roam away from the computer. When I found a plot defect or an opening for a new detail, I'd pace the room or step to the window, the screen the place where the story was written but not where it formed.