The Craft

I’m sure that there as many opinions on how to write as there are writers. One thing that I’ve picked up during the time I’ve participated in LitKicks is that people go about creating in a lot of different ways, and one of the more obvious differences (at least to me) is the one that exists between spontaneous and (for lack of a better term) non-spontaneous writing.

Certainly there are arguments for both kinds of writing — the stuff that comes out in one sitting and exists somewhat as a record of the moment of creation, and the stuff that is written, edited, polished, honed until it comes as close to perfection as the writer can make it — and what I wonder is, in your own writing, what method do you use? Do you write, or do you craft? Is one method inherently better than the other?

Is “first thought, best thought” true?

23 Responses

  1. No Brainer…I, me, wired and
    No Brainer

    …I, me, wired and
    speaking for myself
    have to say 1st thought
    is the best way for me.
    If I started dissecting
    a poem, it would never
    get out of the bag.

  2. Not For MeI love that scene
    Not For Me

    I love that scene in *Naked Lunch* where the Jack Kerouac-like guy is talking to the Allen Ginsberg-like guy about this very topic.

    I’m like the Allen Ginsberg-like guy.

    It took me around ten years to get from the first word on paper to the final draft of *Dionysus Logged Out*. ( Along the way, I showed a draft I *thought* was done to Levi Asher. But then some time after that, I was looking at it and I decided it wasn’t done, not by a long shot. In fact, I started again from a blank sheet of paper. Levi told me not to. He assured me it was done.

    Well, many years later, I finished. Again. Levi seemed pleased with the results. Was it worth the time? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. Because I couldn’t help myself.

  3. I get first response!In japa
    I get first response!

    In japa meditation, the repetition of a mantra, you know what your next thought will be (that’s the goal anyway) to know that your next thought will be on the mantra term you have chosen, and you will think this thought even if bombs explode and hell opens up before you. Do you know what your next thought right now will be? Most the time, we have no idea what our next thought will be, how it is related to the previous thought, and how it is related to our sense perceptions to the world around us. You see a car, do you think “truck” or do you think “salamander.” Maybe, it makes more sense to think “truck” or “wheel” or “slow death for the ozone.” But, maybe it’s more creative to think “salamander” or even “tetrapod” (the first brave creature to emerge from the primordial ooze and walk on land). Anyway, most that is not so deliberate, one for the most part doesn’t direct one’s thought from car to truck or car to tetrapod, it just happens and has less to do with conscious choice at that moment than a lifetime of thought conditioning, where certain well travelled neural pathways accept the water like the sea. So, in non-deliberative thinking, you have a billion neural pathways and associations, and you can’t have a single thought without triggering thousands of others, like picking up a stick and finding it bundled in a bunch, so everytime I think car, I automatically think tetrapod. I don’t even perceive them as separate thoughts anymore.

    But when repeating a mantra, I see the space in between each thought. My thoughts are deliberatly directed, I know what the last thought I had, what the next one will be, and how big the space in between them. That space is the uncreated emptiness out of which all things become.

    Sometimes, when I write spontaneously, I just spit up the same well-worn neural pathway associations, that undeliberately move along according to the conditioning of my mind to think in syllogictic, Aristotlean logics. I write “car drove past my window.” I come back to it with an intention of making a more creative statement and revise: “car ran over brave testrapod emerging from a primordial sea.” So, my second attempt altered the neural associations and diverted the water to a more productive course. Who is to say the conditioning which produces the first thought association is any better or more authentic than the conditioning which produces the second association?

    But sometimes when I write spontaneously, it comes from the space in between my thoughts, and thoughts on either side of that space unrelated by an principle of association that I have nver before recognized, or anyone else for that matter. This is when the magic happens. But I find no crime in giving it some architecture later.

    So the question for me is always does that first thought arise from silence or from noise.

  4. Yo, JD King, it is good to
    Yo, JD King, it is good to hear from you here. Your book “Dionysus Logged Out” is a hell of a book, really — it was good before you rewrote it, and it stayed good after you rewrote it. It’s kind of funny to think that maybe rewrites don’t even matter, for all the over-thinking we give them. You can’t save a bad book and you can’t ruin a good one. Or maybe you can.

    Anyway once we get our “indie writers marketplace” thing going here again (should be soon), I hope we can help promote your excellent novel.

  5. I think I agree with this.
    I think I agree with this. Have you heard about this new book, “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell? It’s basically about the same thing you’re describing. What your commentary seems to suggest, although I may or may not be interpolating my own ideas over yours here, is that there really is no such thing as “first thought”. Every thought follows from other thoughts, and every thought is equally pure or impure. The brain always uses recycled materials. I think this is one valid way of looking at it.

  6. First Come, First ServedFirst
    First Come, First Served

    First thought, best thought is how I generally work. Although, I edit as I go. I’ll read and re-read something around thirty times before I click the submit button.

    When I look back and read things I’ve written before I very rarely feel like adding to them. Regardless of whether I love or hate them in the present. Poetry is more of a way of keeping track of my life. This is probably why I will never publish a book though, too.

    I also think that editing poetry can distract us from its original intent. There is this one poem that I continued to edit over the last four years or so, and it’s so off the wall now, so abstract, I don’t even remember what I was trying to say originally.

    So, while I am a fan of “first come, first served” thought process, I don’t necessarily think it’s the stuff great poets are made of.

  7. True Thoughts, Best
    True Thoughts, Best Thoughts

    First, I don’t bullshit. I write. I take notes and rewrite. Often though, I can write short pieces and visualize pages ahead of time especially if it’s in response to what others wrote. Editing’s very important because it’s dishonest to waste the reader’s time if the reader must tease out your meaning.
    I’m most interested in getting as much done as possible, e.g., I want to add 50,000 more words to my current project before July. I become a writer, vis-a-vis a scribbler or a poseur, late and want to get some good shit done but I admire work that’s done well, e.g., Catch-22 or Winesburg, Ohio.

    I’m reading The Corrections now and like most of the writing except for some of the word choices. I also like a lot of the fine writing I read in the New Yorker but it’s got to be real, authentic, or I don’t finish reading it.

    As for methods; just do it. Use whatever works but don’t plagarize. I know from experience that as long as you keep writing you can put yourself in whatever mental state you need to be in to get the job done.

  8. Stirring up the hornets’
    Stirring up the hornets’ nest, and letting the thoughts fly, catching the essence, and then moving on to another stir.

  9. crosst the
    crosst the colorwheel

    spontaneous writing.

    just like life as streaming video.
    sometimes there’s a lot of buffering.

    but facile rapid explosive creation.
    page after page after page
    toward some broad or narrow end.
    follow an arrow. a culmination
    of gatherings and siftings and prunings and growth
    with physical weighty results.

    what have i described? the easy stuff.
    the what you wish for.
    what you can train yourself to do.
    or you can’t train yourself and it’s uncontrollable.

    nonetheless. spontaneous vs. nonspontaneous.
    human recklessness does disservice to subconscious communication.

    i’ve come to like the phrase ‘look before you leap’
    like knowing your next thought in mantra
    or bearing the ability to react or act instantaneously. thoughtlessly.
    or like the word ‘selah’ measure meaning, pause, seek understanding.


    the hard part is refinement. the re-evaluation.
    though i hate to impart value flippantly
    especially to art.
    i’d rather read something that’s been rewritten.
    human error is an unfair disadvantage.

    complementary colors are across the colorwheel from each other.

  10. Kerouac EchoesI’m sure
    Kerouac Echoes

    I’m sure Kerouac would tell you that spontaneous prose was best. He was good at it. When I write something spontaneously, oh, it’s hit or miss. Half the time it is crap, the other, it can be interesting.

    One time I had a bad cold, and took some medicine, then about two hours later, forgetting I had taken that, I took the stuff the doctor had prescribed me. I had a bad reaction. In fact, I felt like I was floating a foot off the ground. I went out that night and came back. And I had written. Still feeling weird, I wrote about 4 pages of nonstop, odd writing. I looked at it the next day and it was unlike anything I’d written before. Funny, genius, but definitely not anything anyone else would understand. Well I usually take my cold meds correctly and usually don’t write like that. I can’t write without editing unless its “action” poetry (ahem). I make so many grammar mistakes that I don’t think I can do a Kerouac-like story anytime soon. And when I do write spotaneous, someone else always points out what’s wrong. My cool story gets lost amidst the mistakes others point out. So I think I’ll stick to honing & crafting. Or at least preventing other’s eyes from the mess of my spontaneous writing.

    I may never come up with anything as interesting as my Nyquil-esque prose complaining about buffaloes and angels that one night. But at least what I write today is edited and makes sense. I hope.

  11. Kerouac did slave over honing
    Kerouac did slave over honing and crafting for his first published novel ‘the town and the city.’ If you read ‘windblown world’ you’ll see just how much he struggled to get where he wanted to be. Even then, there are things from some of his earliest writing that are published now like ‘orpheus ermerged’ and ‘atop an underwood’ that I’ve never read but know they display his writing in its first stages. ‘On the road,’ was even edited and probably not written in a twenty day spree as Kerouac boasted in his more ‘papa’ Hemingway style. The journals evidence this. They discuss, too, his many false starts on his famous novel. I think Kerouac was angry when the publishers and editors tweaked parts of the novel. I don’t know the extent of their tweaking. Maybe some one can fill me in there. But they did make him cut the length by shortening some of the chapters.

    I was reading in Gerald Nicosia’s lengthy biography of Kerouac would study literary criticism too. I don’t know why, but I found that very interesting. You should check that book out. It’s called ‘memory babe: the critical biography of Jack Kerouac.’ I’m going to find the time to read the whole thing some day, hopefully soon.

  12. think well, but act
    think well, but act soon…

    Certainly, I do both things. Although I enjoy polishing every phrase of what I’m writing — of course not in the Flaubert way that he perhaps spent one entire day searching for the correct word to write (besides, there is no point of comparision with that great writer,it’s just an example) — sometimes I also enjoy letting loose and writing what arises in an spontaneous way, because, I know that is OK yet. Moreover, I think the phrase “first thought, best thought” is true, not in terms of writing, but of real life. There are very few times to think time after time about things that we feel just now, and a long time to repair mistakes. I hope that from here onwards I’ll keep my word! Besides, I don’t know if the recent it’s an spontaneous though or I have been thinking about it!

  13. Yes, I have heard that
    Yes, I have heard that Kerouac edited at least some of the time. And yet he’s known for spontaneous prose. I don’t like others to edit my stuff either, I can see where Kerouac was coming from. I will check out that book someday, someday. Thank ya.

  14. to answer my own question…I
    to answer my own question…

    I never used to edit. I would write whatever came into my head and that was good enough. I go back and read some of those things from time to time, and though I sometimes find a line or a sentence or a single image that’s striking, I find, for the most part, that it’s not that good. I want to go back and edit it all, to polish it until it sparkles, but I mostly leave it alone, because it is what it is — a product from a certain phase in my writing.

    I hit a wall a couple of years ago, where I got obsessed with making everything perfect, and it was paralyzing. I could spend hours on a single phrase, trying to pull the perfect words together to make it, well, perfect. Obviously, I didn’t create much during that time, and when I read it now, it all seems kind of stilted and false to me, but at least it’s pretty, I guess.

    These days, I don’t write much of anything, but when I do, I strive just to write. To get it all out, without second-guessing my word choices (too much) during the actual writing part. Then I let it sit for days, weeks, months. When I think I’m removed from something enough to read it again, I pull it out and read it aloud, correcting as I go for mistakes in grammar and style, and also for places where the flow is awkward. If there’s an interesting thought or image or snippet of dialogue in something, I spend some time with it, turning it over, seeing if it needs more or less, or if it’s good the way it is. Sometimes I’ll pull it out entirely and sketch it in a couple of paragraphs from a different angle, to see what perspective fits it best. I haven’t really finished a lot this way, but I’ve been learning a lot about the way I write, so I guess it’s valuable.

    I’ll probably switch methods again at some point, though, because switching methods is what I do, it seems.

    Anyway, yes, I edit. I think it’s more fair to the writing that way. Is “first thought, best thought” true? Somewhat, I suppose, but I think sometimes the first thought might need revisiting and/or revising so that it can be as clear as possible.

  15. sometimes the first thought
    sometimes the first thought is a great thought and it needs immediate recording in order to save it.

    However if the idea is to communicate the thought, then work can be a very useful activity.
    Sometimes an intro needs stretching or shrinking.
    Sometimes the topic sentence can be moved around to make greater impact.

    Sometimes the rhythm is out of tune with the season and needs adjustment.

    First thoughts can be wonderful, fresh and unique. Long may they live.
    Second thoughts can make those first thoughts come alive in others.

    thanks for the thoughts, jam.

  16. “I don’t know if the recent
    “I don’t know if the recent it’s an spontaneous though or I have been thinking about it!”


  17. “But sometimes when I write
    “But sometimes when I write spontaneously, it comes from the space in between my thoughts, and thoughts on either side of that space unrelated by an principle of association that I have nver before recognized, or anyone else for that matter. This is when the magic happens”.


  18. “I also think that editing
    “I also think that editing poetry can distract us from its original intent. There is this one poem that I continued to edit over the last four years or so, and it’s so off the wall now, so abstract, I don’t even remember what I was trying to say originally”.

    I don

  19. PossibilitiesWhat is the

    What is the first thought or what is spontaneous writing when I write in an idiom that is not mine?. Is it different when I write in my idiom?

    Do I “own” an idiom?


  20. I would say, first thought is
    I would say, first thought is almost always best thought as far as the idea of what you want to say, but the actual sentence structure should often be revised. You’re not changing the thought, but the way it is conveyed to the reader.

  21. bill – perfect example you
    bill – perfect example
    you took my thought and revised it to a nice tight peach

  22. Vonnegut’s take on thisMy new
    Vonnegut’s take on this

    My new hero Kurt Vonnegut talks about this subject with characteristic brevity and insight. In his recent(ish) work ‘Timequake’ (1997), he suggests that there are two types of writer, ‘swoopers’ and ‘bashers’. He states:

    “Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, cinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done…Writers who are swoopers, it seems to me, find it wonderful that people are funny or tragic or whatever, worth reporting, without wondering why or how people are alive in the first place. Bashers, while ostensibly making sentence after sentence as efficient as possible, may actually be breaking down seeming doors and fences, cutting their ways through seeming barbed-wire entanglements, under fire and in an atmosphere of mustard gas, in search of answers to these eternal questions: ‘What in heck should we be doing? What in heck is really going on?’ “

    Now I admit this view generalises somewhat but I think he gets the argument moving in an interesting direction.

    For me, it is possible to be both a ‘swooper’ and a ‘basher’ these days. I think most of us are. We perhaps differ in the ratios though.

    I am without doubt a ‘swooper’ more than I am a ‘basher’. I react a lot. I see pathos and I gobble it up and spit it out. A few tweaks here and there and I share it with my manager, my brother, my band and my friends, with you lot. The thinking and the contextualising (and the regret) all come some time afterwards.

    I don’t think I was made for the slow methodical approach to creativity. I don’t lament this fact. I read ‘Bashers’ like Kurt Vonnegut or Saul Bellow and I am changed, edified, inspired – but so too is my ‘swooping’ – and that is the beautiful fact of the living circle.

    And that is the bit I’ll be writing about until I die.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!