Thursday, October 07, 2010

Writing to Think

Listening to NPR Monday morning as I packed my girls’ school lunches, I heard retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, discuss his work and how writing played a role in his career. His remarks reminded me a great deal of how and why many of us come to this craft and why we remain so passionate about it.

In the online version of the interview, titled “Justice Stevens: An Open Mind On A Changed Court,” by author Nina Totenberg, Stevens said he was often surprised by how the act of writing his rulings allowed him to think through opinions. “I have found very often, I'm surprised [that] the result I come out with is not necessarily what I assumed in advance.”

Sounds a lot like fiction writing, especially for those of us who don’t outline. Many of us start a novel knowing very little and absolutely nothing about how it will end.

“For Stevens,” Totenberg continues, “writing the first drafts of his opinions himself, instead of delegating the task to law clerks as many of his colleagues do, helped with that process [of reaching his conclusions]. In writing it out, Stevens says, "your reasoning will either make sense or it won't. And if it doesn't, you change your vote, or you change your whole approach.”

Often, about 100 pages into each novel I get lost. I go back and reread what I have written and—usually—I see where I went wrong. Or, as justice Stevens would say, I see where my reasoning was flawed.

After all, that’s what writing fiction is all about, isn’t it? Posing a central conflict for a protagonist to overcome. Whether a mystery or not, fiction writing is the art of deduction and reasoning. And when I’m writing at my best, I’m working just as hard as my protagonist to solve the mystery. For me, writing is thinking.


On a side note, to get my seniors writing and thinking this week, I assigned the following: Write a short story or a fictitious newspaper account based on the following scene before you. A woman sits casually at the table. No expression on her face. A man is on floor, knife in armpit, blood is present. (750 words max.)

Be sure to consider and explain all of the props and exactly in your account of what happened: Who are these people? Where are they? Why? When is it? What happened?

You may take notes or pictures.

1. Clear Care eye solvent (Hint: the fastest way into someone’s bloodstream is through the eye)
2. Plum (half eaten)
3. Table with linen
4. Two coffee mugs
5. Two chairs
6. Knife
7. Blood
8. Dishes, silverware

My colleagues Ellen McGloine and Ben Niles graciously played the role of Woman and Man in the photo (above).

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