When I was thirty I assumed that by the time I was fifty I would know what I was talking about. The notice didn’t arrive in the mail. At fifty I knew less than what I thought I knew at thirty, and so I figured that by the time I was seventy, then surely, this being America, where all the stories supposedly end in the key of C major, I would have come up with a reason to believe that I had been made wise. Now I’m seventy-five, and I see no sign of a dog with a bird in its mouth.

I’m reminded instead of a story told about Pablo Casals at the age of ninety-three, living in Puerto Rico with a woman many years younger than himself. A journalist sent forth from New York asked him why he practiced the cello every morning for four hours. Here he was, the most famous cellist in the world, no longer performing on the concert stage, at ease in the Caribbean sun. Why then the unnecessary labor? Because, so Casals is reported to have said, I’m learning something.

I approach the act and art of writing with the same hope. I never know what I think about anything—the stains on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, O. J. Simpson’s golf swing, a “war on terror” declared against an unknown enemy and an abstract noun, the mystery of the Laffer Curve, the death and transfiguration of Ronald Reagan—unless and until I try to set up a thought in a sentence or catch it in the butterfly net of a metaphor.

Lewis H. Lapham, “Figures of Speech”