September 27, 2009

"When Writers Speak"

Arthur Krystal reflects on how many good writers aren't good talkers. Nabokov, for instance, insisted on having interview questions submitted days early, and then merely read his answers to the interviewer off his famous note cards.
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.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Any way you say it or write it Steve, you're a national treasure.

robert61 said...

So your radio interview didn't go so well? I couldn't get the streaming software to work.

Anonymous said...

on a similar note, I find typing easier than voice input, even though voice input has improved tremendously and I'm a terrible typist. Perhaps the slower pace of typing has something to do with it or maybe the sound of my own voice is distracting....

James said...

How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

Stephen Dawson said...

The same thought occurred to me thirty odd years ago when I saw a famous writer being interviewed on a TV show. He set new standards for being inarticulate.

I find that it's much easier to lie to myself (ignore counter arguments, etc) in voice than in text.

Kevin K said...

Has there been any studies between the people who write exactly like they talk and those who use entirely different speech patterns?

From an example from pop culture, Siskel and Ebert were both very entertaining on their show and both had interesting insights, but Ebert's written reviews were always much, much better written than Siskel's. I always thought that was strange.

John Craig said...

Part of the difference between a "personality" and a writer is just quickness. The French have an expression, "l'esprit de lescalier", or "the spirit of the stairs," which refers to how one thinks of an appropriate response on the way down the stairs after a dinner party, rather than at the dinner, when it would have been timely. People who are witty in person are just better at coming up with stuff on the spot.

I've often found, however, that when these wits set their thoughts down on paper, they don't sound nearly as intelligent as real writers -- who don't sound nearly as intelligent in person.

A big part of the difference may have to do with inhibitions. People who are shyer by nature are constantly censoring themselves in various ways, and it's harder to come up with good material when in that frame of mind. When you're lying on your back with a laptop perched on your chest at 6:30AM with no one else around, the thought flow much more freely. And writers are by nature more solitary creatures; "personalities" by nature want more social contact.

l said...

"...and people capable of telling great stories waddle like ducks out of water when they attempt to write."

Reading the transcript of a 'great speech' or witty monologue is usually a disappointment. Comedians and politicians make horrible writers. Comedians become unfunny (Garrison Keillor) and politicians incredibly self-absorbed(Obama). With speech, delivery is 50% (+/-).

Then there are writers who try to duplicate the halting, rambling, cliche-ridden pattern of conversational speech. I find this style of writing annoying, but some are able to build a lucrative career on it (Thomas Friedman).

Jerry said...

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?"

-E. M. Forster. I used to like that quote, except that it really should go, "How do I know what I think until I read what I wrote..." But that doesn't cut any ice in our loquacious --to put it kindly--culture.

Saul Bellow delivered a great interview to the Paris Review sometime in the mid-1960s; he asked for a transcript of the initial conversations, and heavily revised this before publication. This seems a neat way to do it.

I've found that keeping a journal has been tremendously illuminating. When I don't write, it's almost as if I don't know what has happened.

Somewhat related to this, I read a long article somewhere a few years ago about how different people are good at assimilating information either through listening or through reading. And one reason to explain the failure of some recent presidents--I think JFK was an example?--was that they were better at listening and only got written reports, or the other way around. I don't think I read it here, because I only discovered this place a few months ago...

Anonymous said...

"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."

Why write stuff like this? You frighten the young. I.E.....Me.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of interviewers who discovered that P.G. Wodehouse was not witty at all in person.

albertosaurus said...

Is this line of argument just another way to save your Obama had no ghost writer thesis?

Must of the electorate today expects a published politician to have had a ghost writer. This is especially true when the writing is better than the speaking. This seems to describe Obama. He is famous for his eloquence as a reader of a tele-prompter. No one pretends that Obama writes those speechs that scroll in front of his face when he is on a podium. Many have noticed that when he is off the prompter he is not particularly eloquent or well informed.

So the suspicion arose that Obama didn't write the books published under his name. I hired you to investigate this issue (that means I bought your book).

You have become identified with the theory that Obama is a highly talented author and that his writings offer a window into his soul.

You are a professional author but have only published the one book. If the central thesis of that book - that Dreams of my Father is the way to understand Obama - is wrong, your reputation and credibility must suffer.

This posting seems like another attempt to support your stance that Obama is primarily a literary being. You may be right or you may be wrong. Right now it looks as if Obama had Bill Ayers as a ghost. I don't know of course but the arguments based on internal evidence and a lot of speculation seems to currently favor the critics.

The idea that good writers are poor speakers is at best "not proven". There are four classes: good writers but poor speakers, poor writers but good speakers, good witers and good speakers, poor witers and poor speakers. If anyone has investigated these classes I am unaware of the results. You only provide anecdotes.

Chief Seattle said...

Steve, this contrast between deliberate thinking and on-your-toes thinking extends to areas other than writing. And I imagine there's a HBD element involved. Take a completely different area of expertise - driving. Some cultures like the Germans aren't great at thinking on their toes, so they create elaborate systems of rules and infrastructure so that they wont have to. Stop lights, limited access freeways, rules for passing - all of these things are focused on reducing the amount of immediate decision making that will be needed. Whereas southeast asia has few or none of those things, and all the different combinations imaginable of pedestrians, bicycles, cars, trucks, and farm animals. To a German that is a very stressful driving experience. But to a southeast asian, it's not so bad - you just have to immerse yourself in the reality of the moment, not the construct of the rules.

A lot of American industry is based on the same principles. Like they used to say about the Navy or the Phone system: "built by geniuses to be run by dummies". Deep thought in advance to avoid thinking on the spot.

my two cents said...

I'm not sure Nabokov is the best example since English was not his native language.

Svigor said...

I'm with Pinker on this one, writing isn't in real time.

Still, writing makes me a better speaker. Hash it out enough times in print and it becomes rote and you can summon it quickly in real time.

I think Nabokov is the exception.

Jim O said...

I'm an appellate lawyer, and have been for a couple of decades. The next time I drive back to the office after an oral argument without thinking of a brilliant riposte to a judge's question that I wish had occurred to me in time will be the first.

Anonymous said...

"Comedians and politicians make horrible writers. Comedians become unfunny (Garrison Keillor) and politicians incredibly self-absorbed(Obama)."

This may well be true on average, but I just thought of a counter-example. A few years ago I picked up a book by Dennis Miller in the discount bin at a Barnes & Noble. Couldn't put it down, ended up buying it and reading it whole. I think I enjoyed it more than I ever did listening to him on TV.

ricpic said...

If your job is turning sentences around in your head all day you become excruciatingly sensitive to faulty or even weak sentence structure. Which means that in conversation you frequently revise internally, a major impediment to fluency.

Pentheus said...

Tom Wolfe is a great writer who is also an entertaining speaker. His speaking style, though, is different from his writing style.

Anonymous said...

I went to a P.J.O'Rourke book signing (Eat the Rich) where he read a passage from the book's intro.

He sounded...well he sounded like ME. Hesitant, halting, and not well paced. After he tripped on a word he said "Wow, I'm going to pieces over one word." But to read his stuff it's obvious he's highly gifted.

Anonymous said...

In "The Bell Curve" the authors point out that a high IQ person may not always be quick or articulate on his feet due the fact that he's processing so much more information.

Then again, those that are both quick on their toes and say intelligent things must be bright. All great writers must likewsise be bright. Therefore high IQ is probably necesary but not sufficient for either skill.

Some equate "g" with processing speed, and since all the top writers probably have high "g", it is strange that so many are average in spoken word. Perhaps they get anxiety knowing they fall short of their wit and colorful use of language in writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm a loner and I perform very much better when no one is observing me. I once tried to commentate a cycle race and just couldn't keep up with the race. Couldn't even remember the participants names,but could always win the races.I think teachers thought I was dim except when I wrote external exams and came up with distinctions.

Anonymous said...

Only good speakers/orators can truly change history...the best thing writers can hope to do is influence the ideas of great oratorical politicians who in turn use that knowledge to influence the masses.

The generally ignorant masses do not respond well to writing, logic, facts, or reason -- instead, they are only swayed by eloquent speakers/orators who use strong emotion. The ancient Greeks/Romans understood this and studied and practiced rhetoric and public speaking profusely.

RobertHume said...

"Only good speakers/orators can truly change history...the best thing writers can hope to do is influence the ideas of great oratorical politicians who in turn use that knowledge to influence the masses."

Newton, Adam Smith, Darwin, Edison, Ford, WWII codebreakers, ... ?

Depends on what you mean by "writers" I suppose. Certainly Shakespeare, Tolstoy, etc., did not change history.

Richard Hoste said...

"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."

Why write stuff like this? You frighten the young. I.E.....Me.

Me too. How much does a person lose as he ages? I once heard that by your seventies you typically fall a standard deviation. Is this true?

David said...

Nothing more boring than reading writers writing about their writing process.