Friday, July 09, 2010

Blogging the writing process: seeking and finding

Tenthmedieval has a pair of lovely posts up, one about taking notes (with screenshots) and one about writing in which he uses the term "environmental fretting," which I'm going to adopt immediately. He also has links to others' posts about their writing processes and to his notes catalogue.

Here's the problem I keep running into: if my notes are organized into something like an Endnote database or put into folders, I perceive them as hidden and can't remember what I wrote in them. If they're disorganized, as in "heaped into one big Word file with a whole lot of commentary added" or stuck in a huge pile on my desk or in the huge folder optimistically labeled To File, I know what they say but don't have them organized at all.

What I've been trying to do this morning is to organize some concepts so that they cohere in this project I'm working on: I have five things that relate to concept X, three for concept Y, etc. It's been kind of like those word puzzles on the SAT: "If John sits next to Jane but two seats away from Tyrone, and Tyrone has a beach cottage, who is sitting next to Susan and which person has red hair?"

Reading the little pieces in Endnote, even if I search for the keywords I've inserted, doesn't make these ideas come together. Index cards don't work for me, either, because somehow they encourage a sense of fragmentation. I've tried, but the concepts just sit there like little white specks of dead ideas on the floor. Index cards worked great as flash cards for memorizing Anglo-Saxon vocabulary words back in the day, but for concepts, no dice.

What this project apparently requires is the magic of print. I recently printed out transcriptions from various research trips, including the one last year and the recent one (and boy howdy--if I could write as fast as I can type and transcribe, I'd have a book manuscript by now), got out my trusty three-hole punch, and put them in notebooks. Now the pages are alive: I can flip through the pages of the notebook and read them in a manner that my brain has decided is the proper one for reading. When I was reading these files on the screen, I wasn't getting anywhere. Now that I have what appears to be a narrative, even though the order is random, I can see narrative patterns emerging. I can only "find" if the files aren't set up in the order that would allow me to "seek."

Today's distraction: why, this blog post, of course.


Earnest English said...

So hilarious that the formats that allow you to seek don't allow you to discover connections and organizations. I'm like that too. I do have a big giant file that I put all sorts of notes in -- sometimes just ideas or paragraphs of crap relating to my work; most often, responses to specific readings. One thing I do with this mess is print it all out. Then I read it, writing notes in the margins. Sometimes I go ahead and actually physically cut the pieces so I can move them around any old way I want to, though I like your idea of putting the notes in a binder. Maybe I'll try that with the article that I have to somehow take from random notes to article this month.

Word: ouslash? Is that like hack and slash, my favorite revising technique?

Carl said...

It's interesting how much difference the recording, storage and delivery of information makes in how we process it (understand, shape, distort, etc.). I'm with you Undine, in finding the linear pseudo-narrative of a text comfortable to think with. This is obviously a material prejudice, however; someone reared on electronic delivery might have a different material prejudice oriented toward tags, links and hypertext. Not only the way they took and processed notes but the way they thought would be different.

I sometimes think one of the little tragedies of our current transitional moment is that kids who could be mastering the new literacy are being taught the old one by dinosaurs like us, or the new one badly. Our students are not nearly as tech-savvy for the most part as the myths would have it, but isn't that the learning curve they should be on?

Horace said...

Having jumped back into writing the large project in earnest this past week, I too have opened a new "Zero Draft" file that has notes, brainstorming, and first hacks at difficult sections that I will then revise and move into the working draft itself. I haven't printed out the zero draft, but I have printed out the working draft to make notes on it, that I then transcribe back into the zero draft file. Unwieldy, but so far quite productive.

undine said...

Earnest English, I haven't cut the pieces up yet but may try it. "hack and slash"--what would we do without it?

Carl, that's interesting. I think I need a narrative form because I'm producing a narrative text; with other forms, I can't seem to visualize them unless I do them as hypertexts with tags and links. Maybe the students need to learn both (and I've often taught them both) depending on the kinds of texts that they have to produce--narrative for essays, creating hypertexts for other things.

Horace--glad your project is going well! Moving back and forth between the zero draft and the rest is necessary.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I recognize this. My workable format is the codex. I can file paper in folders and drawers, but then it's gone, as if I'd thrown it out. Binders make it accessible. The current problem is making room for more binders, and of course taking the time to set them up. That's just for photocopies. Doing the same with one's own notes and so on is the logical next step for a codex-oriented mind . . . why didn't that occur to me?

Carl said...

You're right, Undine, I only baked my thought halfway! Different forms for different kinds, just as you say.

Digger said...

I also cannot work off of a screen. I need papers, to mark up, circle stuff, draw pointy arrows across to where I want to move text, cross stuff out, and think about connections on.

My students work entirely on the computer, from first draft (I love the idea of a Zero Draft!!!) through edits and to the final copy. Frankly, it amazes me...

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for the links! I feel so far away from your approach here, though. I can only really write by imagining myself trying to explain the subject to an imagined audience. Without the shape given by this story-telling, and the order it imposes on the material, I'd have no idea what to write. I suppose it just goes to show how many different modes of thought are in circulation. (Which presents a horrible challenge for teaching...)

Anonymous said...

I was paper oriented but now I have no room just to study and I don't want papers around.

I bought a large beautiful external monitor which can show me documents in multiple windows while I write on a different screen.

This will work once I figure out what piece of furniture I really want it to live on and where to put it, and have the right kind of chair.

Figuring out how to do this stuff is really key. People say you should be able to work just any old way but I need one writing room with an open view, straight bookshelves in front of me, a huge desk of the right height, a chair of the right height, a working telephone and an Internet connection, I really do, so I can see my stuff!!! Otherwise I can easily go into circles looking for it, or have my brain stop as I feel oppressed by the piles of paper. !!!

undine said...

Dame Eleanor, that's my problem, too--in folders, they're out of sight and out of mind.

Digger, that marking-up process seems to be part of the thinking process. It's interesting that the students don't need paper to do this, especially because they were taught (weren't they?) all those techniques of brainstorming where they put everything into circles and draw "mind maps."

undine said...

tenthmedieval, I freeze up if I imagine any audience but myself for a while, but I do imagine it as a kind of story that I'm telling.

Profacero, I agree: surroundings are important, especially at the foot-dragging beginning of a project. If I don't have the stuff I need, I spend huge amounts of time looking for it, which is why the idea of going somewhere to write is so disruptive.