This week, I found myself talking with folks (students, friends, and writers) who were struggling with the process of getting things on paper. Not the classic writer's block, not the sense of "I have nothing to say," but the feeling that it wasn't worth putting words on the page because those weren't the perfect words.
My first encounter with this concept was in college, when I got to know a student down the hall. He wrote beautifully. Exquisitely. His 2-3 page response papers were gorgeous. But he hated them. And he also took hours and hours and hours to generate them. We got to be good friends, and often studied in the same room. Let me describe our processes: see if you recognize yourself in them.
Imagine a paper due the next day. Here's my desk: books and class notes out. On top of them, a clean sheet of paper that I'm gradually filling with an outline. Next to this, square in front of me, my computer. I look at the outline, I type a few sentences -- maybe I reach over and grab a book and reread a passage. Go back to the computer, change a few things, write a few more sentences. And so on. In two hours' time, I print out a copy, take a walk, and then come back to revise. At my friend's desk, he's got his computer in front of him, his head in his hands (two fistfuls of hair, usually) and he's staring at the cursor, which is blinking in the middle of a lovely sentence.
These were analytical papers, but the same holds true for fiction or creative non-fiction composition. This isn't about habit or writing practice, I believe, so much as it is about how one understands writing itself. A process, yes, I hope we all know that. But not a linear process. One doesn't begin at A (concept/idea/thought) and proceed sequentially to Z (published product). It loops back, again and again. And not just through a procession of drafts, but also because you read and think and write and talk with a friend and then rewrite, and then discover you need to read some more... and so on.
My friend (and many of my colleagues and students) get stuck because they believe that before committing anything to paper, it must first be "right" or "good." Even if they know they will revise, they won't set a word on a page unless the piece/idea is fully conceived of. For them, thought precedes writing. For me, writing is thought. The idea doesn't fully exist until I have written it. The process of writing and the process of understanding are simultaneous for me.
Is it possible to begin writing too soon? to compose when you don't understand something enough to write on it? Of course. The reading and research and thinking need to happen beforehand... but the idea -- whatever it is -- doesn't exist until the words are on the page. At least that's what I believe... I welcome your comments!