Friday, April 3, 2009

Writing at the Speed of Thought"

Ever since I started this blog, I have placed little notepads in every room in the house. That way, when an idea comes to me, there is somewhere close by I can go to to write it down.

It’s not just the idea I jot down. It’s also clarifying notes, notes that convince me there’s something there, and that I have Earlishly fresh ways of writing about it. Later, I go upstairs and toss these jotted inspirations on a pile on my desk. The majority of them evolve into actual posts. Others, on further consideration, have found the wastebasket as tightly wadded mini-basketballs.

It’s not just that I’m old. And it’s not that I’m too lazy to go upstairs to my computer. And it’s not that my memory’s that bad. (I recently memorized the list of 44 presidents.) There’s something valuable to me about recording the idea immediately, while it’s exciting and brimming with possibilities.

Many times, an idea comes to me and I think, “I’ll write it down later”, and then later, I either can’t remember the idea, or I remember it, but I can’t remember what I wanted to say about it. Whatever hidden place great ideas came from, that’s where they went back. I ransack my mind, and it’s nowhere to be found.

I wish I knew where that place was, where inspired ideas come from and where they go when you lose them. It sounds like a very creative place. I imagine a library…no, an “Idea Playground”, brilliant notions running around and having fun. Not just a playground for funny ideas. The cure for polio used to live there. But somehow, it got out.

I don’t know how to get to that place. (Does anyone?) But I truly believe there’s this magical fountain of unconscious creativity. Remember I said there were no “funny numbers”, only right numbers? I said that the surest way for the right number to leap to your consciousness is to open your mouth and let it fly. No intervening thoughts or judgments, just

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you seventeen times…”

New technologies have helped shorten the gap between inspiration and execution. There are computers that take dictation. You say the words, the computer write them down. The next step is computers that take dictation directly from your mind. (Maybe they have that already and nobody told me.)

The goal for me, in order to deliver the purest and most truthful form of written communication, would be to ultimately be able to write at the speed of thought.

Which brings me to the thing I don’t understand.

I alluded to it yesterday in “Shakespeare’s Scribe.” I meant to write about it then, but I got sidetracked by silliness. I was having so much fun with a peripheral element – the relationship between The Bard and the guy who wrote his stuff down – I never got around to my actual point. So I went back for it today.

I try my best, with my computer and multiple notepad placements, to get my thoughts down as quickly as they come to me. For me, speed is of the essence. Write it or lose it, or at least its inspirational heartbeat. But these old guys – Shakespeare, Newton, Thomas Jefferson – they weren’t able to write quickly. They were writing with feathers.

You’ve seen their writing. Long, convoluted sentences, packed with colorful phrases and clarifying clauses. They go on forever. I can lose my chain of thought going from my chair to a notepad. How were these people of the past able to retain their complicated ideas long enough to get them down?

We read their words off a printed page. But that’s not how they wrote them. They scratched their inspirations out one long and looping letter at a time, incessantly dipping their quills, frequently blotting to avoid a smudge.

I find it baffling that, throughout all this stenographic huffing and puffing, they continued to remember what they were trying to say.

Thomas Jefferson, sitting at his desk, starting out on the Declaration of Independence.

“Okay. What am I trying to say here? I’m trying to say….‘We’re rebelling and here’s why.’ So why don’t I just say that? ‘We’re rebelling and here’s why.’

“I can’t. That’s not good enough. Posterity demands a show. They’re going to read this in schools. If we win. It needs to have some weight. Some historical gravitas.

“I want to say, ‘We’re rebelling, and here’s why’, but I need to say it…stylishly. And comprehensively. After all, this is a quasi-legal document. We can’t have any loopholes.

“All right. Let’s get started.

“We have to explain why we’re having a rebellion. People from other countries and the people fighting in this rebellion are going to want to know why we’re doing this? You can’t just, you know, go down to Concord start shooting. You need an explanation. Otherwise, it’s just craziness.

“We start with a preamble – to explain why it’s necessary to explain why we’re rebelling. Okay, got it. Pick up the quill, dip it in the ink, and off we go…

“Wait. ‘Think before you write.’ Good idea. Otherwise, there’ll be a lot of scratching out. Let’s see now. ‘When in the course of human events…it becomes necessary for one …people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another….’ Okay, okay. That’s good. I like it.

“Here were go. ‘When…’ Big ‘W’. Down…and up, and down…and up. Lovely ‘W’ – one of my best. Now, ‘h’…big stick, and… the little chair… Curlicue ‘e’…and… ‘n’ – ‘h’ with a little stick. Okay, that’s ‘When’. Looks very nice. Pick up the blotter – blot, blot, blot – put down the blotter. Re-dip the quill…back to the paper, and what’s next?

“Uhhhh…

“Darn it! I forgot where I was going.”

There’s a knock on the door.

“Jefferson?”

“Who is it?”

“Franklin.”

Jefferson lets him in.

“How’s the Declaration coming?”

“I made a start.”

“What have you got so far?”

“‘When.’”

“‘When’, what?”

“I can’t remember. But I’m telling you, it was really good.”

The guy scratches out one word, blots, re-dips his feather, and has no recollection of where he was going. That’s my fantasy. But it’s not what happened. Instead, using the slowest writing technology imaginable, short of a mallet and a chisel, Jefferson maintained his inspiration and focus and penned a beautiful and flowing Document for the Ages.

To paraphrase Butch Cassidy, “Can you do that? I can’t do that. How can Jefferson do that?”

Do you think we’ve lost something?

If we have, what is it?

And how do we get it back?

6 comments:

Joe said...

1- as re. dictating with your thoughts, we're actually getting pretty close:

http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/mar2009/gb20090331_865756.htm?campaign_id=rss_daily

2- I think it's something we've lost. Back in the Ye Olde Quill Days, there wasn't as much stuff to clutter your mind. Shakespeare's mind probably had something like this on his To Do List:

a) Do not die of plague
b) Do not get thrown in the Tower of London
c) Pick up ruff and tights at the cleaners.
d) Write 22 hours a day.

growingupartists said...

Oh, that's easy. Children need to be memorizing poetry and doing copywork of the great works. Speed of thought IS fast, now that you mention it, and not very interesting. Maybe the secret's in soap operas, it may even be too clever Gossip Girls. Not sure, I guess, use words you enjoy. Words that describe the world of your making.

Also, lots of contraction marks and inexcusable slang. Whatevah! I can send you a list if you need some...you know my email.

growingupartists said...

Also, this post got my attention:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/thailand/5099709/Ten-years-jail-for-insulting-Thai-king.html

My thoughts are that a king doesn't even have any real power if he's so dependent on everybody holding back their true thoughts. And the king doesn't even know what a true sham the rest of the world sees it as. Either nobody can explain it to him in a clear enough way, or he has different principles.

Sad thing is, if the king would just trust the venting of his people, in this case it was a doctored photo, but words could offend just as easily. The kid in jail is only going to grow angrier, and have even more to say against the king by this judgment. So, some countries work by different logic than free speech, I guess. And the entire population, suffers for it, and is restricted in their potentials, both personally and nationwide.

Good luck, Shakespeare!

A. Buck Short said...

Congratulations Bart. Wall St. being so au courant, you’ve been promoted to scrivener. Today we’ll be going through the Bs – bailout, billions, Bernie Madoff…er…broke. If you do a really lousy job you get a bonus

I do think that those of us who typed before computer cut-and-paste have the advantage of more linear thinking – out of necessity. Who wants to buy liquid paper by the gallon – even if you could actually type over it, without looking like you’d written in bat guano? On the other hand, linear thought does have its creative limitations.

I actually did see a PBS (I think) NOVA showing computers hooked up to the mind of a man with virtually total paralysis. It allowed him to communicate by looking a letters to spell out sentences. They also had a cybergizmo that worked in reverse. They had somebody look at something like a dozen images in a particular order. The computer connected to the brain was able to identify which images, and in exactly the right order, I think based on what specific area of the brain lit up, or something like that. Impressive.

Which raises the question, have you been following me? This is funny. The reason I’ve had to catch up on your last several blogs is that, since Wednesday, I have been locked in a studio transcribing a documentary we did for a distributor, who apparently needs that to sell this sucker for broadcast. The narration was already turned into text from the video by voice recognition software – obviously the bane of all scribes. I just had to insert the interviews and add time code each time somebody new speaks. Didn’t asked why; when somebody says they can get a slot for this, we do what we’re told.

The strange thing about transcription after the fact, as opposed to a script written to be performed, is how arbitrary it can be. Somebody talks, and there are pauses, and you have to decide if that’s two separate sentences or just one. I never realized how often people speak with semi-colons, but have found that frequently that gives the best representation of the way something was said. The really odd thing is that occasionally and arbitrarily the voice recognition software decides to insert preferred grammar or syntax – like spellcheck. However, in that case it’s only a suggestion. Here, the machine has already placed it in the transcript for you to undo.

Also strange how the software has to make the same kind of decisions you do of whether or not to divide a statement into separate sentences – even though all may not be complete sentences in the traditional sense. What I have discovered is that it’s apparently partial to ellipses. Lazy as the rest of us.

Oh, and the reason, I’ve stopped jotting thoughts down on scraps of paper, is that my handwriting is so bad, not only can I not read it myself, my took one to the pharmacy and they filled it for Xanax.

growingupartists said...

Buck Short, your job sounds painfully boring. Is there nothing in it for you? I suppose in your spare time you transcribe yourself, but still. Computers aren't creativity, are they? Please don't tell me they paint too, I'll be devastated.

Anonymous said...

if the best writing is rewriting and all these people wrote by hand, wouldn't it make sense to think that they're process may have been similar to ours (inspiration happening in short amounts at unknown times) but because they have to rewrite everything (by hand no less) wouldn't they have more time to play with the wording? granted there were scribes for copying, but nonetheless i doubt jefferson sent the declaration to the revolutionary equivalent of kinkos when he needed a copy for the other Founders...