Writing From the Heart and the Head


There are certain movies that just seem to stick with you, don’t they? Perhaps it’s a plot line, or an image, a piece of music, or perhaps a piece of dialogue. No matter what it may be, the moment is etched in your mind—forever. Implanted in our memory, that particular moment touches something deep within us—something lasting and profound.

I had one of those moments in late 2000 while watching the film Finding Forrester.

The film tells the tale of an unlikely friendship fostered between a 16-year-old black teenager, Jamal Wallace, and an aging recluse author, named William Forrester, in the heart of New York City. It is a moving portrayal of two strangers arriving at a deeper understanding of their own selves as they come to understand the other. What grows between them is a mutual respect for each other as writers.

One particular piece of dialogue has always stuck with me. Surrounded by books, in a dimly lit apartment, Forrester offers a piece of writing advice to his young protégée, saying:

“In writing, you must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head.”

What captured me was this simple, yet deeply profound thought that writing comes from a place of passion. It begins with collecting thoughts and emotion in a first draft that may be rough and disjointed, but comes from the heart. What comes next is the head, the hard work of editing and forming the clay of the first draft into something concise and powerful.

If truth be told, writing is more of an art than a science. It is about passion and motivation. Good writers do not write because they have to say something. Good writers write because they have something to say. The most powerful writing comes out of the overflow of the heart.

This is why one of the central questions for all writers is this: Is there something inside you that needs to be written? Are you writing because you want to or because you have to? In other words, is there something burning in your chest—something that needs to come out in writing? Is there something that keeps you awake at night and fuels your thinking during the day?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about this quote from Finding Forrester, or have shared it with others as a way of encouragement. It has sharpened my writing, even pointing me in the direction of what I should be writing about. It has also liberated my writing process as well, allowing me the freedom to write what I feel, not worrying about the quality of the first draft.

In the end, writing is merely a process of refinement—taking what is burning inside the heart of the writer and making it as powerfully focused as possible.

// Mike DeVries


Also in this series:
Reading to Write
Finding a Voice Amidst the Noise


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