“No, the Idea That You Can Write in Your Head Is Ill-Conceived and Silly”

Yesterday’s post (How to Trust and Value Your Own Thinking) by former New York Times journalist Verlyn Klinkenborg was about writing in your head: “You’ll learn to be comfortable in that dark, cavernous place.”

It drew a harsh comment from Barney Collier, also a former New York Times journalist: “His dictates about how to construct a story are both ill-conceived and silly.”

Klinkenborg’s advice to his students had struck me as odd but interesting and I figured he had a Ph.D from Princeton and had taught at Harvard so he should be worth listening to. Barney disagreed with enthusiasm.

As a writer I did a lot of thinking in my head about what I was trying to write—I always figured the ideas came best when you weren’t sitting at a computer. But to get started on the actual writing I had to see it on a screen, or on paper, to begin to think I had something worth saying.

As an editor, I worked with lots of writers who complained of writer’s block and my advice always was you have to get your fingers moving on the keyboard even if you know your first efforts aren’t any good. I used to sometimes just write “now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country” three or four times just to get my fingers moving and hopefully my brain working. Anything is better than sitting and staring at an empty screen.

Here’s what Barney had to say yesterday:

Almost every word and all of the eventual sentences and paragraphs written by Mr. Verlyn Klinkenborg irritate the bejesus out of me. Why am I so viscerally upset?

To my ear his prose is wooden and contrived; his choice of words is snooty and mediocre; his dictates about how to construct a story are both ill-conceived and silly. After looking up about 30 quotes of his I feel that I’ve read the thoughts of a pedantic hack who expects his readers to believe his bunkum because his has written a book or two and works for a well-known publishing company.

His opening paragraph is composed of ten sentences, not one of which enjoys even a tiny crumb of charm. Most are just plain pompous in that word’s most arrogant, conceited, overbearing, and condescending sense. Mr. Klinkenborg neither demystifies nor illuminates the “origin of sentences” and he haughtily assumes that the reader he is addressing has a dopey voice in her/his head that “natters along quite happily,” like an idiot’s might.

I have known bright four-year-olds who would be insulted by his insolence and impudence. I’ve edited enough fine writers whose thoughts don’t natter to know that Mr. Klinkenborg’s observations are full of guano. The final sentence about “language”, which does not bear repeating, lacks any useful meaning.

In the next six-sentence paragraph Mr. Klinkenborg demeans his luckless students (they stumbled into the wrong classroom) whom he depicts as essentially thoughtless and in “fear of the dark, cavernous place called the mind.” He compares their minds to an empty mailbox.

He sounds to me like a perfect adjunct professor at a bad journalism school. Any student of his worth a farthing would get up and stalk out.

His next 18 sentences tell fledgling writers to “experiment a little” by “again and again” making up sentences in their heads that they don’t write down. Not a single one of those 18 sentences is worth either reading or remembering. Perhaps that’s his covert point. The rest of the paragraph’s advice is so pretentiously juvenile that it’s not worth bothering about.

This time suck is followed by several tiresome and disagreeable paragraphs, and flaunts one of the least intelligent sentences I’ve read in years:

“A sentence you don’t write down is a sentence you feel free to change. Inscribe it, and you’re chained to it for life.”

Tell that nonsense to any writer who has ever been published for money and you are quite sure to provoke a derogatory laugh.

His last 13-sentence paragraph contains three sentences that include a distasteful comparison that Mr. Klinkenborg must be chained to for life:

“There’s no magic here. Practice these things, and you’ll stop fearing what happens when it’s time to make sentences worth inscribing. You’ll no longer feel as though a sentence is a glandular secretion from some cranial inkwell that’s always on the verge of drying up.

I don’t think I’ve ever read any less worthy advice for writers than Mr. Klinkenborg’s and I hope his cranial inkwell has mercifully dried up.

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