Am I disappointed? I am at first, but then I think: writers don’t have to be brilliant conversationalists; it’s not their job to be smart except, of course, when they write. Hazlitt, that most self-conscious of writers, remarked that he did not see why an author “is bound to talk, any more than he is bound to dance, or ride, or fence better than other people. Reading, study, silence, thought are a bad introduction to loquacity.”
Sounds right to me. Like most writers, I seem to be smarter in print than in person. In fact, I am smarter when I’m writing. I don’t claim this merely because there is usually no one around to observe the false starts and groan-inducing sentences that make a mockery of my presumed intelligence, but because when the work is going well, I’m expressing opinions that I’ve never uttered in conversation and that otherwise might never occur to me.
When I was a teenager, I was smartest when shooting baskets in the backyard. I would work out new arguments for debate while shooting hoops. The repetitious but not boring exercise seemed to stimulate my brain.
These days, I don't have the kind of memory left where I can work out a long chain of argument in my head. I have to put my flickering thoughts down on screen right away before they go away. I love going for walks, and I would very much like to rationalize walking as crucial to my coming up with new ideas, but, in truth, it's a much inferior use of time to banging away at the keyboard.
Nor am I the first to have this thought, which, naturally, occurred to me while composing. According to Edgar Allan Poe, writing in Graham’s Magazine, “Some Frenchman — possibly Montaigne — says: ‘People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to write.” I can’t find these words in my copy of Montaigne, but I agree with the thought, whoever might have formed it. And it’s not because writing helps me to organize my ideas or reveals how I feel about something, but because it actually creates thought or, at least supplies a Petri dish for its genesis.
Typing forces me to confront holes in my arguments. Generally, I come up with better ideas not through changing my mind but through a thesis-antithesis-synthesis process in which I confront my idea with somebody's opposing evidence and look for a better idea that incorporates all the evidence.
In contrast, Nabokov felt that the acts of communicating just poorly replicated the brilliance inside his head: "I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child." But, then, he was Nabokov.
The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, however, isn’t so sure. In an e-mail exchange, Pinker sensibly points out that thinking precedes writing and that the reason we sound smarter when writing is because we deliberately set out to be clear and precise, a luxury not usually afforded us in conversation. ... Pinker likens this to mathematicians thinking differently when proving theorems than when counting change, or to quarterbacks throwing a pass during a game as opposed to tossing a ball around in their backyards. He does concede, however, that since writing allows time for reveries and ruminations, it probably engages larger swaths of the brain.... This rhythm, not so much heard as felt, occurs only when one is composing; it can’t be simulated in speech, since speaking takes place in real time and depends in part on the person or persons we’re speaking to. Wonderful writers might therefore turn out to be only so-so conversationalists, and people capable of telling great stories waddle like ducks out of water when they attempt to write.
Obviously, rewriting helps. Lots of people are best in real time, but writers aren't.
So the next time you hear a writer on the radio or catch him on the tube or watch him on the monitor or find yourself sitting next to him at dinner, remember he isn’t the author of the books you admire; he’s just someone visiting the world outside his study or office or wherever the hell he writes.
One problem I have in conversations with my readers is that when I deliver a witticism, it's usually something they've already seen by me on their computer screens. So, in person, I'm just plagiarizing myself. Where's that spontaneous Sailer wit? Well, that spontaneous wit only comes and goes when I'm writing, and even when it comes it still takes me 5 or 10 minutes to get it down just right.