The other night at the signing at Quimby's I said during the Q&A session some nonsense about "you can't think yourself into writing about action, you can only think yourself into writing about thinking."

Since then I've learned that the actual saying I was referring to is "You can't think yourself into right action, you can only act yourself into right thinking."

So I was a little off. I apologize for any confusion.

How did I screw this phrase up so badly? If you have nothing better to do, listen up.

Over a year ago, while in a hospital waiting room, I picked up the Feb. 14 & 21 double issue New Yorker (with Chris Ware's sequentializing of the iconic Eustace Tilley cover).
I started reading the Mark Singer's profile of TV writer David Milch. I became fascinated with Milch and his ideas, and made plans to watch his HBO series Deadwood.

(Sidenote: I just finished Mark Singer's book Mr. Personality which collects some of his profile pieces for the New Yorker and which I enjoyed very much, though in the copy I got out of the library, the introduction ends mid-sentence and I couldn't figure out if it was a joke or a first-edition blunder. Also related: Singer wrote a profile of Ricky Jay in a different NYer which inspired me to read Mr. Jay's awesome Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. Also, Ricky Jay plays a character on the show Deadwood.)

So in this profile of Milch he says:
"I try consciously to frustrate the impulse to think about a scene before I sit down to it, because--you know the highfalutin' expression 'You can't think your way to write action; you can only act your way to write thinking.'"

Now I've read this article 3 times since that waiting room, yet somehow this "highfalutin' expression" was transmogrified in my brain into
"You can't think your way to write action; you can only *think* your way to write thinking"
and I thought this diagnosed flaws in my own fiction writing. Yeah, I thought, that's right: I tend to overthink my stories and my stories tend to be about thinking, not action. Gotta work on that.

So the other night at Quimby's I was talking to the crowd about flaws in my work, and I mentioned the highfalutin' expression, by now totally telephoned into something else completely--no longer an expression of pithy pragmatism but dubious writing advice.

Today while inking I'm watching/listening to an interview with Milch (by now I'm a big fan) he says
"You can't think yourself into right action, you can only act yourself into right thinking."
and I clearly hear "right" instead of "write" because of the context and it suddenly clicks. That makes more sense! (And I could suddenly connect it to Milch's interest in William James.)

So I go back to the Singer profile to find the original quote thinking "how did I get that so wrong?" My only guess is that in the profile Milch is making a joke--he's punning on the "right" saying to say something about his own writing method. He doesn't think about his writing until he sits down and starts. The "write" saying works too, and makes perfect sense, though conceptually it isn't strictly symmetrical, and so that's maybe why my brain couldn't make sense of it until I distorted it to fit my own situation. Maybe for me the saying should be
"You can't read your way to right jack shit."


Austin said...

That profile piece is unbelievably good -- i just reread it the other day. I've heard the book TRUE BLUE, in which Milch explains the stories behind the storylines on NYPD BLUE, is really good, too.

I especially liked his homework assignment in that piece, "write every day, for not less than twenty or more than fifty minutes, a scene with only two voices and no other narrative description; “Don’t think about what it means, don’t think about who they are”; and, above all, “Don’t think about what you’re going to write before you do it.”

Trouble with comics is that with all the pencilling and inking and photoshopping it's pretty difficult to not plan things out and keep things fresh and spontaneous...I think the majority of that has to happen in the initial doodle/thumbnail stage...

Mac said...

Thanks for the mention of McPhee in your latest. He would love to see a copy. I guarantee he'd write you back.

Anyway, here's a link to Milch's latest.
- a fan in Mass.

Kevin H said...

I did and he did.
Thanks for the link. Sounds interesting I guess...because it's Milch.

Yeah I put that TRUE BLUE book on request just last week.

I'm way ahead of you dudes!

Anonymous said...

FYI - The derivation of that "right action / right thinking" thing is Alcoholics Anonymous. It's one of their slogans.

Kevin H said...

Milch is AA, which largely draws from William James.