‘it’s the other one who’s the lunatic’

I posted this Nabokov-Trilling conversation some months back, marveling at  how TV in the fifties could  screen two stout old buffers talking learnedly about literature, in a way unthinkable today unless they were somehow locked into the Big Brother house. Anyway, the NYT links to the same clip and points out something that’s missed: Vlad’s actually reading his bon mots from notes. That’s right — in a conversation about his own work, he’s relying on prepared to answers to ensure that he’s sufficiently witty.

As the Times article notes, the clip’s indicative of our changed expectations on writers as performers. These days, we expect that any author gives good panel. If you can’t talk about your book, well, good luck getting publicity for it.

But, of course, writing and speaking are too entirely different skills. Indeed, they might actually give rise to very different mental processes:

There’s something about writing, when we regard ourselves as writers, that affects how we think and, inevitably, how we express ourselves. There may be no empirical basis for this, but if, as some scientists claim, different parts of the brain are switched on by our using a pen instead of a computer — and the cognitive differences are greater than what might be expected by the application of different motor skills — then why shouldn’t there be significant differences in brain activity when writing and speaking?

Along these lines, it seems composers sometimes pick up different instruments when trying to solve musical problems. It’s not that a violin offers up secrets the piano withholds, but that the mind starts thinking differently when we play different instruments. Or maybe it’s just that the flow of thought alters when we write, which, in turn, releases sentences hidden along the banks of consciousness. There seems to be a rhythm to writing that catches notes that ordinarily stay out of earshot. At some point between formulating a thought and writing it down falls a nanosecond when the thought becomes a sentence that would, in all likelihood, have a different shape if we were to speak it. This rhythm, not so much heard as felt, occurs only when one is composing; it can’t be simulated in speech, since speaking takes place in real time and depends in part on the person or persons we’re speaking to. Wonderful writers might therefore turn out to be only so-so conversationalists, and people capable of telling great stories waddle like ducks out of water when they attempt to write.

(Oh, and the title of the post comes from an anecdote at the end of the NYT piece. Read the whole thing. It’s funny.)

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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