Editorial April 2013

WHEN APPEARANCES ARE DECEIVING

Photograph of Irving E. Rockwood

It is said of Mozart that he could compose whole pieces entirely in his head.  The brilliant mathematician John von Neumann (1903-57) mastered calculus at the age of 8 and was renowned for his photographic memory.  Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, ranked among the top 15 players in the world at age 16.  I don’t know about you, but I hate people like that.
 
That’s because making things look easy is hard, at least for me.  I resent folks who breeze effortlessly through tasks I struggle with.  Maybe that’s one reason I am less fond of Isaac Asimov (1920-92), who wrote more than 500 books and seldom if ever edited or revised his work, than of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006).  Known for his witty and ironic style, Galbraith regarded his first draft as “a very primitive thing” and revised his work extensively before publication.  (Full disclosure: I once met, briefly spoke with, and shook hands with John Kenneth Galbraith.  He was very tall and thoroughly intimidating.)
 
People like Galbraith are a great source of comfort to me.  While writing has long been an integral part of my work life, I find it slow and tedious.  I have a particularly difficult time getting past that blank computer screen at the beginning of a writing project.  Even when know what I want to say--only rarely the case--the words come slowly.  The first draft of the first sentence is quickly discarded.  The first draft of the first paragraph can take an hour, or more, and even then seldom survives in recognizable form.  It is only toward the fifth or sixth paragraph the words finally begin to flow as the form and structure of the work begin to crystallize in my mind.
 
Until, of course, a paragraph or two later when it all comes unglued, and I realize the recently devised game plan is hopeless.  Suddenly, it’s distraction time, time to wander around the office and ask people how they’re doing.  What do you think?  Do the Red Sox have a chance this year?  How much snow did you get at your place?  Have you tried the new restaurant down the street?  Is it any good?  Nice talking with you.  I think I’ll go get a cup of coffee.
 
The coffee often helps.  If nothing else, it signals that it’s time to return to the task at hand.  And somehow, via some mysterious process, a new game plan emerges, and words once again begin to appear on the computer screen accompanied by the keyboard’s staccato rhythms.
 
For me, writing is a lumpy process in which words come in spurts interrupted by droughts of indeterminate length.  Somewhere toward the end, it finally comes together.  A coherent structure and flow emerge, and then the polishing.  And sometimes, when it’s all over, when the last 't' has been crossed, the last 'i' dotted, and the last comma inserted (or deleted), the results seem satisfactory.  Other times not.  But whatever the final form, it is invariably different from the one I envisioned at the outset, even when, on those rare occasions, the final product reads almost effortlessly.  Appearances are always deceiving that way.—IER