Thinking about Writing, and Writing about Thinking about...

9 January 2014
Prompted by a question from an old friend ("Have you done any writing yourself?????"), I replied in a few paragraphs, but this morning bethought myself to try to construct a better-articulated answer to the question. Here's the result, provisional as always and somewhat scattershot, surely a bit self-serving, but not without occasional piquancy, and pretty much as it tumbled from the fingers on a cold day in early January.
I've never found it congenial to outline. My writing usually begins with the inner voice forming a phrase which, if written down, fairly quickly expands into a sentence. The writing down, often on a scrap of paper or in a small notebook, often provokes further inner-voicing, and if I'm walking, the chain of ideas or phrases is often spun out to what seems to be a coherent passage. If I then transcribe the sketch into a textfile, I have a building block which can be augmented and sometimes combined with others, and probably edited for felicity... but the process begins with a phrase.

Where the phrase comes from isn't clear. Often it seems to be something rattling around in my mind as I chew over some topic of current interest, and sometimes it seems like there's a precise use of a particular word that sits at the heart of the phrase. I wouldn't dignify this process as a method, still less insist that others should emulate, but it does seem to work for me.

I fancy that my process is derived from, or at the very least is strongly informed by, a series of writing workshops I enjoyed at Bard College in the late 1980s, during the high tide of the Writing Across the Curriculum movement. A core idea, even method, involved a process called 'mapping' in which a word or phrase written at the center of a piece of paper was surrounded by free associations of other words and phrases, networked by lines representing associations --connections and derivative links. Done once or twice, mappings of this sort are a parlor trick, but when the writer resolves to keep at it, the results can be quite surprisingly productive. Another bit of method was called 'free writing' and required the participant to just-write, even if what came out on the paper was nonsensical. Often enough the nonsensical would, almost magically, turn into coherent ideas and phrases.

One of the doyennes of the Movement was Ann Berthoff, who taught writing (and much else) at Boston University for many years. Among her books are these, eminently worth reading 30 years later:

Reclaiming the Imagination: Philosophical Perspectives for Writers and Teachers of Writing (1984)

The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models, and Maxims for Writing Teachers (1981)

Forming Thinking Writing The Composing Imagination (1982)

from the preface:

Insofar as this book reflects my teaching experience, it has been nurtured chiefly by the late Carolyn A. Blackmer, who was mentor and guide in the first years of my classroom career, nearly 30 years ago. She taught me how to read Whitehead and Peirce and to trust the power of the human mind, despite a young teacher's inclination to believe that there was little evidence for its existence. Our daily trip home on the Boston and Maine (bringing back to North Station a carload each of lobsters and tired teachers) was a three-year seminar in forming, thinking, and writing. I like to think that she would have approved this attempt to encourage students to explore how it is that, as she used to say, form finds form and "to grow," as I.A. Richards has said, "in capacity, practical and intelligential" as a result. This book is dedicated to her memory.

(Carolyn Blackmer is my mother; I remember Ann vividly from the early 1950s, and met her again in the 1990s. I'm just as sure as I can be that I osmosed many of the ideas in Ann's books from my mother, quite unconsciously...)
Other very important elements in my own history as a writer are (a) a 35-year habit of daily journal writing and (b) engagement with hypertext as a medium. The former is essentially internal/personal and doesn't tend toward long-form composition, though I keep a separate journal for more extended pensées, but has proved very useful for rear-view mirror perspective (objects are larger than they appear...) on states of mind and chronological precision. Hypertext is for me a much more external medium, and has facilitated my writing aimed at various possible audiences, made possible/accessible by the interwebs.

Ted Nelson is usually cited as the 'inventor' of hypertext, or at least the coiner of the term. His zany career is supremely worth study (if not emulation), especially via Project Xanadu, Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974/1987) and possibly Possiplex: My Computer Life and the Fight for Civilization, an autobiography that I've just ordered.

My own encounter with hypertext began with Hypercard on a Macintosh SE/30, the machine that eased my escape from Acadia University in 1990 and saw me through a year and a half of library school at Simmons (1991-1992). I worked on a hypertext Encyclopedia of Musical Instruments for about a year, wrangling with soundfiles and imagery long before mp3 and jpg files were everyday flavors of information. Once the WWW emerged in 1993 or so, I quickly learned basic html and started putting everything I did into potentially-public documents on the Web (somewhat to the bemusement of my library colleagues) and exploring how Web documents might alter teaching-and-learning.

For me, the essence of hypertext as a composition medium is the possibility of launching outward links from a text --to websites, to documents, to other media like imagery and video. A piece of writing can thus include allusions and references and examples, and the writer has the wherewithal to construct and then distribute skeins or networks of interlinkages. I think this power at the ends of, well, everybody's fingers changes Education forever. In the days when I still believed that I could influence the evolution of Education I wrote all sorts of stuff about the prospects, and I still believe in a lot of what I thought and said at the time. Some examples:

The Disgruntlement File

End of March 2005 (six months before retirement)

Early June 2005 (three months before retirement)

Sometime in the mid-90s I started keeping logfiles of my discoveries and maunderings, dating each entry and instantiating a new logfile when a new topic demanded separate treatment --a sort of protoblogging avant la lettre. A few examples (alas, infested with linkrot, but that's just How It Is):
Ruminations on Infospace

Digital Libraries logfile

Sabbatical logfile (late 2002)

Global Stewardship logfile

Cross-Cultural Studies in Music logfile

My own blog began in March 2004 and has been a bit fitful but still continues to feel like a medium of communication with the handful of people who follow my twisting pathways though the informational underbrush.

So much more to say, so many other links to incorporate above or add below (e.g., books that have inspired, other forms in which I've written [haiku, for example... a whole other entry], projects that I've begun and ...erm... not finished, and so on and on), but enough for now.