Writing in Your Head
Last October, at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, one of the main attractions was Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg. If you haven’t read Bragg’s early memoir, All Over But the Shouting, run out and buy it right now. While you’re at it, pick up his latest memoir, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People, Lost and Found.
At the festival, I was fascinated to discover that Bragg is one of those rare authors whose spoken prose is nearly perfect. His words flow out in fully formed sentences and paragraphs, as if he has an editor at work inside his head. Of course, since he is Rick Bragg, his nearly perfect words, like his books, are also hilarious and compelling.
I’ve run across this phenomenon with just two other authors I can think of: Doris Kearns Goodwin and Isaac Asimov. Asimov, in particular, was amazing. The first time I heard him speak, his hour-long interview could have been typed word for word, bound, and published. I had always wondered how in the world Asimov had written over 500 books—more than ten a year for 47 years—and suddenly it was clear. He just typed the thoughts as they came to him, with little or no need for revision.
Thinking of Asimov led me in turn to remember Mel Cebulash, my boss at an early job and a published author. Like (presumably) Rick Bragg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Isaac Asimov, Mel basically wrote in his head.
I had composed my first novel, That’s What Friends Are For, in longhand on notebook paper, then typed it up afterward. Mel informed me that professionals didn’t work that way; they composed at the typewriter. He demonstrated his own singular method: think of the next sentence, polish it in your head, and only then, when it’s ready, type it. Using this method, Mel was able to produce clean, typewritten first drafts that were also, in most cases, final drafts.
I tried his method and never produced a clean first draft, but I did learn to compose at the typewriter, and later at the computer. For that, and for so much more, I’ll always be grateful to Mel.