Reading Time: 3 minutes

If you know me at all, it’s probably from my published words. They make up my permanent record, if there is such a thing, which there isn’t.

Let me start over.

Before releasing a sentence into the wild, I spend time alone in a room with it. I’m doing that right now. Even if a podcast or a talk of mine sounds like it’s off the cuff, it never is. Before I let those words off the property, we did time together.

I’ve seen how much that process improves things. There was wet clay, then work, then a pot. You get to see the pot.

I’ll even rework an online piece long after publication if I still have access to it. Small things, usually, including twice so far in this piece, including this paragraph. [EDIT: Four Six times.] I’ve run across online stories of mine from years before, pieces that literally no one is reading anymore, and killed three words in an overlong sentence. Not a great use of my limited time on Earth, but there it is.

Years ago when I taught music history, I described the difference between Mozart’s process as a composer and Beethoven’s. The movie Amadeus was accurate in that respect: Mozart really did write like he was taking dictation. The first draft was often the final draft. Nuts.

Beethoven’s Sketchbooks, of which nearly 10,000 pages survive, show a very different process. At the top of a given page is a melody that can only be described as Scheiße. Below that is a Verbesserung (improvement), or in some cases a Verschlimmbesserung (an attempt to improve something that only makes it worse). Both are generally crossed off in a rage.

From the sketch for Beethoven Symphony No. 5. Courtesy Staatsbibliothek Berlin

At the end of the page, after many transformations, is something like the slow movement theme of the Pathétique.

YouTube video

I know some Mozarts, people whose first thought is unimprovable. They’re great at parties. They ace interviews. Sam Harris is one of these. I doubt these people ever think back on what they said, but if they did, I picture them re-enacting the Nailed It Kid.

Not me. I’m Beethoven, in process if not product. So if you know me at all, you know the thing at the end of all that crossing out.

I wasn’t always like this. As a college professor, I spent hours every day speaking extemporaneously in front of groups, and I was good on the fly. But that part of my brain gradually went flabby after I switched to writing full time, and I developed a kind of performance anxiety in unscripted situations. A canyon opened up between my words and my self.

If you especially like words of mine that you’ve read or heard, I especially don’t want to meet you. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that the gap between the top line of the Sketchbook page and the bottom line is a lot—and I’d rather not see you register that in real time as I top-line all over you.

It’s not that my published words are spun gold, or that I’m complete hash on the spot—it’s just the very real gap between the spontaneous and the prepared. After some event when I’ve given a (prepared) talk, and I’m engaging in (unprepared) small- and large-talk with the people who invited me because they had liked the bottom lines of my Sketchbook pages, I’ve seen that look many, many times, the look that says, Oh.

I’ve spent too much of my one life replaying things I’ve said on the spot, and rending my garments over them, and offering up revisions to the aether. But in the past few years, I’ve come to accept and sometimes even announce my need for time to think, because the final product (if you don’t mind my saying so) is often Really Quite Good.™ In Zoom meetings, I’ve learned to answer direct questions with Lemme think about that. Fifteen minutes later, if you’ll give me time to sketch, and cross out in a rage, I’ll have something much better than I could deliver in the moment. You’ll see.

If I’m describing you, I want to hear about it in the comments. And know that I know that you revised your comment six times.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...