Composing in one's head
February 2, 2017 8:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in examples of people who have composed lengthy pieces of prose in their own heads.

I just read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and I was fascinated by his work (such as he could do it) on the manuscript he had written, which was destroyed by the Nazis, and later reconstituted as that book. Frankl mentioned hiding shorthand notes for himself, when he could.

What other authors have had to develop techniques for writing without writing? Oral compositions are tens of thousands of years old, of course, but they rely on formula, and what is more, community. Poetry and songs act as mnemonics in a way that prose does not. Surely there are authors who have effectively composed books in their heads?
posted by Countess Elena to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Jane Smiley
posted by blob at 8:27 PM on February 2, 2017

Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, had locked-in syndrome. The book talks a bit about his composing process.
posted by yesbut at 10:53 PM on February 2, 2017

While in a labor camp, Solzhenitsyn is reported to have composed work which became part of his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in this way:
At Ekibastuz, any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way.
posted by wildblueyonder at 2:54 AM on February 3, 2017 [6 favorites]

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer "was written while Pramoedya was imprisoned on the political island prison of Buru in eastern Indonesia. The story was first narrated verbally to Pramoedya's fellow prisoners in 1973 because he did not get permission to write. The story spread through all the inmates until 1975 when Pramoedya was finally granted permission to write the detailed story.” (Wikipedia)

I think, from memory, he’d already done the research and planning when was arrested but hadn’t written the novel yet? I’d have to dig out my copy and check the introduction.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 7:47 AM on February 3, 2017

More detail from Pramoedya's wikipedia page: “Pramoedya had done research for the books before his imprisonment in the Buru prison camp. When he was arrested his library was burned and much of his collection and early writings were lost. On the prison colony island of Buru he was not permitted even to have a pencil. Doubting that he would ever be able to write the novels down himself, he narrated them to his fellow prisoners. With the support of the other prisoners who took on extra labor to reduce his workload, Pramoedya was eventually able to write the novels down, and the published works derived their name "Buru Quartet" from the prison where he produced them.”
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 7:50 AM on February 3, 2017

I'm sure there's a quote about Iris Murdoch in which she emerged from her room saying of a novel "right, it's finished, now I just need to write it down". But that might refer more to plotting.
posted by altolinguistic at 8:05 AM on February 3, 2017

Response by poster: Bloxworth Snout, that is amazing. I had never heard of that, and I must go to.

The rosary technique is simple and powerful. I should reread One Day... It's been years.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:36 AM on February 3, 2017

I've always been in awe that John Milton dictated the entirety of Paradise Lost to his aides because by the time it was put to paper he was completely blind. I would assume due to the circumstances that he effectively held the entire poem in his head, but I am unsure if he had worked on it prior to losing his sight.

He also continued writing and publishing poetry and prose through dictation well up until his death.
posted by lesser weasel at 4:03 AM on February 4, 2017

[Wikipedia] "At the outbreak of war in 1939, [Fernand Braudel] was called up for military service and subsequently taken prisoner in 1940 by the Germans. Braduel (sic) was held at a POW camp in Mainz between 1940-42 before being transferred to a POW camp in Lübeck where he stayed for the rest of the war. While a prisoner of war in a camp near Lübeck in Germany, Braudel drafted his great work La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II), without access to his books or notes but relying on his prodigious memory and a local library."
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 2:12 AM on February 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

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