Friday, January 19, 2007

In our write mind

"If all you want to do is figure things out, why do you need to write anything, though? Why not just sit and think? Well, there precisely is Montaigne's great discovery. Expressing ideas helps to form them. Indeed, helps is far too weak a word. Most of what ends up in my essays I only thought of when I sat down to write them. That's why I write them."
- The Age of the Essay by Paul Graham

What happens when we write?

For a substantial piece of writing my preferred medium for first draft is pen, pencil and paper. Or I might type up some ideas, print them out and then annotate the print out with pen and pencil. Another way I might start writing is through reading a book or article and underlining and making marginal notes with a pencil. For a significant book I might even make an index of marginal notes on the front or back cover, with page numbers, so I can look them up quickly. I always carry a pencil and paper with me so I can jot down thoughts that seem significant when they arise. Otherwise they can be lost forever. So, I've always seen the writing process as one requiring some careful scaffolding of the environment.

For a substantial or complicated piece I prefer to take my time, making lots of notes first, before I commence word processing. For example, in writing “Invitation to Immersion” I ended up with a thick folder of handwritten notes (say 40 pages) which were further transformed by multiple word processed drafts (at least 7 versions). Taking time, revisiting and ongoing reflection is an important part of the process for me. The thinking and the writing can change quite significantly in the process.

I remember being impressed by a university lecturer once for sharing that when he wrote his PhD thesis he redrafted the first sentence over 100 times.

Until recently I've thought that the process was one of concepts being created in my brain (or mind?) and that writing and editing was the process of expressing and clarifying those concepts more clearly on paper or screen. There was an inner voice, or a voice in my head and writing was an expression and clarification of that voice. Writing clarified thought.

I didn't think that my mind was routinely processing grammatical sentences as part of my thinking. But after learning about concept maps (Learning how to Learn, Novack and Gowin) I thought my mind worked like that. That inside there was a bunch of concepts with various connections to each other and somehow my task as a thinker was to retrieve those concepts and by thinking about them to modify and improve the connections between them. My mind was a concept map.

There was no “ghost in my machine”. I had a concept map!

I'd now call this view mind-centric. I'm not suggesting that I thought there was a ready made blueprint about topic xxx inside waiting to come out. The notes above indicate that I've thought the process is tortuous and involved considerably self scaffolding to capture elusive ideas that might suddenly arise. It's more that I saw the mind as the master of the situation, that the mind was in control of the whole process and I had to be ready to jump when the mind spat out a new idea from its unconscious or where ever those new ideas come from.

I now have an alternative view which is: Writing is a form of thought. The thought lives on the page just as much as it lives in the mind. Sometimes the mind is manipulating the writing and at other times the writing is scaffolding the mind. How could my mind be in charge of something that is interacting with so much outside? Editing doesn't clarify thought, it can totally reconceptualise thought

You can end up with something completely unintended

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