don’t take that first think

In a recent New Yorker:

Any work that resonates in some way can only be autobiographical. It just comes in different crypto-forms.

This is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who wrote and directed The Lives of Others. His new film, Never Look Away, is loosely based on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter—how loosely is up for debate

(You might know Gerhard Richter from his work as the character played by Alan Rickman in Die Hard.)

This harmonizes with the Ram Dass quote from a few weeks ago, that when you read someone’s stuff, it’s actually about them and their issues even if it purports to address you and yours. Whether it’s a novel or a book of practical advice—it’s autobiography in cipher. Encrypted confession.

The more writing I do—and guys, I’ve been doing far too much of it—the more convinced I become that the worthwhile words we string together are the ones we choose without much forethought. Writing isn’t a planned act; it’s much too complicated, like running. Consciously planning each stride, you’re going to end up scraping yourself off the asphalt. Save your thinking for revision.

In a piece from a few years back about overthinking in The Economist, Ian Leslie discusses Roger Federer’s then-ongoing slump:

In the jargon of sport, [Federer] has been “choking”. This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed.

There’s an intellectual grace, too. Also fragile as hell. Writers fluff the putt constantly. Whether we’re consciously aware of it as we read, we can all tell when a writer is tapped into that grace or when they’re choking.

It’s hard to edit around the latter. You can polish a rough gemstone, but if there’s no magic in a batch of words, better to excise the problem than try to rework it. Frequently, it doesn’t even need to be replaced. Maybe we choked because deep down we knew this didn’t need to be said in the first place.

When we’re tapped in as we write, we’re letting something honest loose. This makes our work autobiographical, no matter how pragmatic our purpose. Can a memo be memoir? If it’s going to be worthwhile, it must be.

Leslie recommends “unthinking,” which he defines as “the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.” Easier said, as they say, but as a general rule of thumb, I do this: when I find myself stuck trying to find the right word or phrasing, I reset, write it the “wrong way,” and move on. On the next pass, I discover the wrong way works well. When it doesn’t, the right way presents itself almost immediately.

Overthinking is vanity. I’m going to make this better than the words that are coming to mind right now. Nope. Writing too much has taught me that I’m not all that clever. Easier to just bull my way through like Kool-Aid Man. Oh YEAH!


(A footnote on parallel universes: don’t pretend Gerhard Richter wasn’t the bad guy’s name in Die Hard. It doesn’t count if you had to check Wikipedia to prove it was actually Hans Gruber. He was only Hans Gruber in our universe. The character’s name was Gerhard Richter in the same parallel universe where they’re called Berenstein Bears and Sinbad starred in a genie movie called Shazaam.)

(A footnote on the belief in parallel universes: I didn’t believe either—until 2016. Now, I’m pretty sure we’re all living in the darkest timeline. Personally, I’ve decided to have fun with it.)