Thinking and Feeling Both

Analysis has its place, which means it’s out of place somewhere else. Analysis means loosening something apart, identifying its elements, seeing how something works or doesn’t work. Analysis undoes the living moment in order to understand it, and so it has no place in moments of creation, when we bring things together to make something new. Where creation does, analysis undoes.

Grammatical analysis, then, has to do with revising what we’ve written, not with putting words and sentences down onto a blank screen or piece of paper as we begin to write. Much like actors’ improvisation, our rough draft, what we first compose about a subject, is all a matter of yes, and to be too critical too early, to take out our steely and polished analytical tools to say no too soon, is to shut down the whole production before it even gets started. For how does anything new arise confidently before shouts of no?

But creation, in turn, can’t do ultimately without analysis. Analysis and understanding form the boundaries for our creative moments, which would otherwise never take on meaningful shape but just push on in excess, formless everywhere. I have heard of teachers who tell their students not to worry about writing complete sentences in completing their assignments, which is fine, I suppose, if that means don’t be too critical of yourself as you get going. But if that means don’t ever worry about matters of form and skill and craft, that any unimpeded outburst of words will justify itself as good and right—that is a notion that conflicts, at least, with the traditional understanding of any art: that without knowing what we’re doing and why, we’re not really doing anything at all.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A student of mine was working recently on a longer document and he was trying to write an opening sentence which would quickly describe how he came to meet the subject of the piece. I have changed the content but retained the grammatical structure of his sentence, and this is what he drafted: I met with the real estate agent for an initial conversation about selling my house after he had been referred to me by a friend who worked with him after he had moved to Chicago. That’s quite a lot, quite a jumble of ideas and events, and quite typical, too, of what we all do as we begin to call to the stage persons and happenings, times and places that will together create the scene we have in mind. But that first sentence was still rough and unorganized (and the writer knew it), and a better way could be found to arrange all the actors in it—which is the work of analyzing this raw creation, this rehearsal. This one sentence, for example, has four clauses, three of which are subordinate, and as those last three subordinate clauses tumble out one after the other, the reader is pulled backwards and forward again in time. Feeling that in revision, the writer could turn to the structure that produced that effect—are the antecedents of the pronouns clear, are the tenses and voices of the verbs correct?—reorder the statement or even break it apart into two sentences, in order to help the reader see more sequentially what happened as the writer lived it in his mind.

All of which should demonstrate for us the necessity of being patient with ourselves and understanding that creation, our first attempt at writing something, will oftener than not be messy, that things will almost inevitably be out of order and tousled and disarranged—patient with ourselves in our unkempt studio as we put this rough idea here and that one there, pieces falling to the floor. We’re building up, composing, but when we get so far—for some a couple of sentences, for others a few pages—we pause to change our mental disposition from yes to no, or better, from yes to why. We move, in other words, from gathering to sorting, from creating to analyzing, and when we’ve done both, not merely one or the other, we can say we are working so that others will understand what we’re thinking.

The writer and historian Jacques Barzun, in his edition of Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage (Avenel Books, 1966, p. 301) once noted that writers of fiction (his remark, though, applies to all of us) “ought to persist in observing what will faithfully render their intuitions of the human mind.” That, I think, hits the entire point right squarely on the head, for our intuitions are the stuff of creation, and our revising and analysis the craft and skill that will faithfully render those ideas to others. To render means here to put our intuitions into the elements of the art of language, arranging those creative perceptions into forms which we can analyze as the need arises, when we sense, that is, that our felt experience is not being felt by the reader. That will both keep analysis in its proper place and give it its proper due.


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