We value very young children for their spontaneity, their unguarded self-expression. Whatever the activity, they’re all-in, free of self-consciousness—that outside standpoint that makes of self an object, wondering how one looks, how one is being judged. Yet growing-up means developing an ego, a self-image, and entering the social hall of mirrors where images are distorted, inverted and shot back, sometimes with horrifying effect. And this leads, naturally, to a curbing of impulse.
Second thought is the giving of thought to thought. It adds an extra layer, and therefore can clearly disguise and encumber. But is that all? Is self-consciousness necessarily nothing more than constriction?
Writers are, by definition, second-thinkers. They speak through the pen, or keys, and then gaze on the image of the utterance. Verbal speech vanishes the moment it’s born, retaining an impression only in memory. But the page or screen of a writer holds the thought, and then begins a dialogue with the page, “Is that what I really mean?” Writing is really rewriting. And now comes the opposite conclusion about second thought – writing is a means to cut and shape and come closer to the truth. First drafts are ‘rough’ drafts—an analogy to sculpture. Michelangelo may have perceived David in the raw block, but nobody else could until he cut away the inessential. First impulses are not usually refined, graceful or precise, but blunt and awkward. Out of the mouth my inner child may sometime speaketh wisdom, but not often.
Granted, this is not the ideal. Who does not covet the power to say simply what is meant, the first time—let alone an extraordinary eloquence that combines grace with spontaneity? Such was always the signature of the poet in ancient times, whose speech was viewed as a portal into another world. I think of blind Milton dictating, like a divine fountain, line after line of Paradise Lost, with no need to change anything; or, in Indian mythology, the poet-sage Vyasa giving birth in one continuous utterance to the perfectly formed epic poem, The Mahabharata. Maybe it didn’t happen that way. These stories could be idealizations, rewrites. But even so, they point to a persistent ideal. The old education in rhetoric (traditionally for privileged boys) sought to free-up the tongue of a student, who could achieve a kind of mechanical fluency that would dazzle the ear, and open up social and political opportunity. But verbal juggling or speechifying is not the same as wisdom, even if the rehearsed imitation has buying power in the marketplace. Spontaneity, even its image, carries the signature of confidence and knowledge, the liberty to be who one is, the freedom from tortuous second-guessing. Even today the holy grail of spontaneity persists in pop culture. Jazz musicians train their reflexes for years in dozens of scales and arpeggios, to gain the ability to weave a spontaneous tapestry over any harmonic landscape the moment may present. But this is still only mechanical rhetoric, as veteran musicians take pains to indicate to the gifted young, who are often dazzled by speed. Artistic maturity is what gives you something to say. Theatric improvisation also attempts to bring together the quick and the apt.
But most of us live divided in this regard. And some of us turn to the page for deliverance. We work over an image of knowledge that isn’t realized—not in real time at any rate. As UCSC philosophy professor Carlos Noreña used to say, “We write that we may discover what we know.” We attempt to use second thought to sort out inner clutter, to call a truce to inner conflict. Even if a lasting treaty can’t be signed, the opposing sides can at least sit down and talk. The page stalls the mind and provides a forum. And in this way, like fighting fire with fire, second thought advances on second-guessing.