Essay: A Writer’s Mind

January 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: On the front page of The New York Times, recently, appeared the face of the author and historian, William Manchester. It was the face of despair, though if one did not know the story the photo illustrated, Manchester’s glassy blue eyes and the parallel lines of the creases on is forehead might have suggested a man lost in creative thought instead. But the story was about Manchester’s inability to retrieve creative thought, in order to complete the third and final volume of “The Last Lion,” his much-admired biography of Winston Churchill. Manchester, who is 79, suffered two strokes after his wife died three years ago. His mind can no longer find the words to write.

“I can’t put things together; I can’t make the connections,” he says. The face shows all the bewildered agony of someone realizing that he cannot do what he was born to do.

We are, more than anything else, a narrative species. We were built to tell stories, like that of Churchill, and thus to keep the larger, longer story of ourselves alive. When we lost the capacity to put things together to make connections, the disability is akin to schizophrenia. The storytelling capacity is gone, and with it, our nature. When that calamity befalls a writer, it is especially painful, because all that a writer has to work with are words and connections.

To date, Manchester’s words have provided an amazing list of successes. “The Death of a President,” on the Kennedy assassination, sold 1.3 million copies. The first two volumes of the Churchill biography, “Visions of Glory” and “Alone” sold about 400,000, and are still in print. Their many hundreds of thousands of words came from a mind that loved to write. Manchester was capable of thinking dozens of paragraphs ahead of where he was in a text; and he never wanted to stop. One sees this rampant activity in writers from time to time, especially in historians like Carlyle and Macauley, and in the remarkable modern work of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., And Daniel Boorstein. Painters like Picasso, too, produced and produced.

The writer’s mind, when it works, is like Alice’s rabbit, leading quickly, almost recklessly, to mysterious, yet attractive, places. The animal is fretful because it has to find and display something at the same time. A writer writes to discover what he or she thinks. Take a single sentence. Take a sentence of William Manchester’s — this sentence about Churchill’s funeral: “When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital, drawn by naval ratings and bare-headed Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again.” Most likely, Manchester had only the scantiest idea where that sentence would end when he began it. Only when he caught up with it could he know. But then, there was another sentence running ahead of him. There was always another sentence. And now there isn’t.

And on some days, he says, he succumbs to despair — the despair reflected in The New York Times picture. It was an interesting decision of the Times to put that photo and story on page one, amid the usual big news of wars and Presidents. Manchester’s is simply the story of a writer’s mind disabled.

But that is a very great story, since out of such a mind comes everything we know. He can no longer make the connections, thus neither can his myriad readers who now mourn “not only him and all that he had meant, but all they had been and no longer were, and would never be again.”

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.