“Stop Thinking with Your Fingers”

In the introduction of Robert Caro’s book, Working, I came across an interesting anecdote and a phrase I took a shining to.

Caro (pictured above as a young man) talks about his Princeton days when he was taking a Creative Writing course with the literary critic and professor R. P. Blackmur. Here’s Caro:

“We had to write a short story every two weeks, and I was always doing mine at the very last minute; I seem to recall more than one all-nighter to get my assignment in on time. Yet Professor Blackmur was, as I recall, complimentary about my work, and I thought I was fooling him about the amount of preparation and effort I put into it. At that final meeting, however, after first saying something generous about my writing, he added, ‘But you’re never going to achieve what you want to, Mr. Caro, if you don’t stop thinking with your fingers.’

“‘Thinking with your fingers.’ Every so often, do you get the feeling that someone has seen right through you? In that moment, I knew Professor Blackmur had seen right through me. No real thought, just writing—because writing was so easy. Certainly never thinking anything all the way through.”

It’s one of the joys of reading, coming across a turn of phrase you want to add to your lexicon. Perfect for a sign above the computer, too. An admonition of sorts from Professor Blackmur via Robert Caro: “Stop Thinking with Your Fingers!”

That’s what the brain’s for, after all—thought. And it takes time. And fingers willing to slow down and wait while you do it, too. Speed is not always of the essence. At least not in writing. Real writing, I mean.

Writing is thinking, yes, but thinking is more difficult than writing, so first things first. Words to live by whether you are a poet, fiction writer, essay writer, screen writer, playwright, or journalist.

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