Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The scribbling machine

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Portrait of Charles Darwin by George Richmond

Yesterday, I came across a fascinating account of the writing process of Charles Darwin, which he originally published as part of a short memoir of his life. Darwin notes that writing has never been easy for him, which has “the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about very sentence,” allowing him to see errors in his own work. He continues:

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.

Darwin, in short, understood the value of an ugly first draft. You often get better results by scribbling down the whole thing “in a vile hand,” and then going back to revise it, than by laboring over each sentence before moving onto the next. And Darwin made a point of doing this at a time when it was much harder to crank out pages at a rapid pace than it is now.

It’s tempting—maybe too tempting—to draw parallels between Darwin’s creative process and that of natural selection itself. When you write a draft as quickly as possible, you introduce elements of chance: an awkward phrase, a sentence fragment that leads nowhere, or a typographical error can generate unexpected trains of thought. Even the appearance of the words on the page can direct your thinking along new lines. They’re all forms of random variation, and even if only one out of ten survives to the rewrite stage, it’s still worth it. But they only come into existence if the process of composition is loose and messy enough, which doesn’t happen when you work out each sentence before writing it down. There’s also a kind of momentum that results when you push against the physical limits of the medium, which forces you to draw on muscle memory. Darwin, as I’ve noted elsewhere, was a tactile thinker. To compare the area of geological formations on a topographical map, he cut them out with scissors and weighed them. He tickled aphids with a fine hair and made artificial leaves for earthworms by rubbing triangular pieces of paper with raw fat. A lot of this is simple experimental ingenuity, but there’s also a real sense in which Darwin thought with his eyes and hands. Writing as much down as rapidly as you can gives your eyes and hands a central role in the writing process. It introduces a few more collaborators, and thereby another source of variation.

Charles Darwin

And this is particularly important for projects that require you to master a large body of factual material. The section of Darwin’s essay that I found most interesting was the one that treated the problem of information management. Here’s how you did it in the nineteenth century:

Having said thus much about my manner of writing, I will add that with my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general arrangement of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso. As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

Darwin had to be a master of organization to assemble the facts that he needed to make his argument, but he didn’t try to keep all of it in his brain at once—he reviewed his personal indexes and compiled a more general one before starting to write. But he also had to remain receptive to overall patterns. Attention to fine detail is important, but it also tends to limit our ability to see connections, as Gertrude Himmelfarb, one of Darwin’s biographers, points out:

His colleagues, the systematizers, knew more than he about particular species and varieties, comparative anatomy and morphology…It was with the sharp eyes of the primitive, the open mind of the innocent, that he looked at his subject, daring to ask questions that his more learned and sophisticated colleagues could not have thought to ask.

The result, which Arthur Koestler calls Darwin’s “amiable credulity,” was a strategy, conscious or otherwise, to preserve an awareness of the whole while focusing on the parts, which may be the hardest creative balancing act of all. His messy first drafts, which naturally led him to think in larger structural units, were another way in. Later in the same essay, Darwin writes: “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.” And it was a machine that only worked because it knew how to scribble.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2016 at 8:34 am

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