Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing, technology and memory

Lo these many years ago when I was writing my PhD thesis, I frequently voiced a wish that someone would invent a form of sentences and paragraphs that worked not in two dimensions, but in three: that had the structure, not of a straight line, but of a mirror ball, so that the sentence, the paragraph, the thought, the Thing would be constantly turning, revealing its different facets, and whoever was reading/looking at it could see how those different facets related to each other.

Which is how grammar itself works, really, and why Yoda funny is, but that's for another post.

I wanted this three-dimensional discursive artifact to be invented in order to be able to circumvent the problem of trying to write about something that couldn't really be understood until something else -- something tangential, or something that happened later -- had been explained. God had gone some way towards solving this problem when She invented footnotes, but there was still a long way to go.

Great leaps and bounds in this direction have been made since, of course, in the form of hyperlinks. I remember the moment when I first realised what hyperlinks were and how they worked: my first conscious thought was Damn and blast, if only these things had been invented before I tried to write my thesis.

The problem of linear chronology remains, of course, in that consciousness and its apprehensions are inescapably linear because of the way that time works, or at least time the way we understand it. You can still only read one thing at a time, and decisions must be made about the order in which you will read them. All the same, it would have been an enormous help to have been able to send my examiners (for who else ever reads PhD theses?) off at a hypertangent in order to find out extra things about the topic before proceeding further.

If I had the patience to read (and the brains to follow) Stephen Hawking, I might have a better handle on this, but life is short.

And because I am now trying to write a book, a book about Adelaide, for which I have a magnificently liberating -- and, for that reason, terrifying -- brief from the publisher (although since it's a book in a series and I'm in the fortunate position of having several earlier volumes to supply a context, it's less terrifying than it might have been), I have been thinking about ways in which technology might come to my aid.

What I need is a form of technology that will automatically record everything you're thinking as you're thinking it: some sort of microchip that reads your mind and has an Autosave function.

I'm sure it's possible. In fact someone somewhere has probably already invented it, and is merely having trouble with the patent. If so, I'm guessing the problem won't have been solved before February 1, the date the manuscript is due, which is a shame. And God knows I have wished to have one of these gadgets implanted many times before today.

But how else to record, without having to race to take notes to keep up with the brain when the brain is actually working this fast, which happens so seldom you have to grab it while it's happening, for who knows when it will come again -- how else to record the suddenly obvious solution, which came to me in the middle of dinner, to the structural problem of where to put the story of the sudden closure of Adelaide's Radio 5KA in 1941, when the government thought 5KA was being run by German sympathisers who were broadcasting in code was because said station managers were Jehova's Witnesses? For it belongs, it obviously belongs, in the section on Weird Adelaide.

What's more, as the radio station closure is all about the mood of Adelaide in wartime, I can tuck in, under that story's wing, my dad's recollections of being a 15-year-old ARP bike rider in 1942, pedalling up and down the streets of Adelaide's eastern suburbs knocking on the doors of people whose blackout curtains were not sufficiently closed -- recollections I was determined to shoehorn in somewhere but had not yet found a place for.

But I had to leave my dinner half-eaten and rush to the computer to write all this stuff down, because otherwise it would have whooshed past like a car in the rain and been lost to sight. I just wish inventors would invent things before I need them.


Unknown said...

I think maybe you need to twitter yourself. I often send myself notes on Facebook because it is so very handy. So maybe you tweet for your future self from your phone, and then you pick up your fork and spoon again.

Elisabeth said...

I know this feeling well. It's the lot of anyone trying to write a thesis or a book, or an essay or anything layered and let's face it most of us want our ideas layered, or as you say, more like a series of circles around a ball, otherwise they lack complexity.

I have footnotes and hyperlinks wired through my brain but my hands cannot keep up as I type, to corral the intellectual knowledge, the emotional stuff, the stuff I know from experience, the stuff others have told me, the stuff I've read, the stuff I'm reading, the stuff in the present and that from the past, the narrative oomph, the images and the ideas, abstract and concrete.

It goes on and on in a ghastly struggle, but at least we can try.

Poets have it easier I think. They concertina images, ideas and emotions into just the right words. And leave the rest to their readers' imaginations.

Oh to be a poet.
Thanks, Pav. Sorry to go on so.

Anonymous said...

"I just wish inventors would invent things before I need them."

Henry Hoke'd be your man then...

Srsly, a book about Adelaide sounds like a fabulous enterprise.

Having lived here there and everywhere, its clear to me that Syd & Bris are largely foreign territory to the Adelaidean sensibility, and that Eastern Coasters are quite clueless about us.

Its as though SA is to Australia what New England is to the US, albeit in a more modest and less abrasive way.


Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I do like the idea of Twitter as a means of communication with a future self!

Elisabeth, yes, that's it exactly.

TFA -- thanks for the idea about New England, that really resonates with me. I shall write it down at once. And yes, the cluelessness of eastern-staters about SA is something I plan to address. Gently, of course.

Tatyana said...

The Adelaide book sounds great.

If I could note that dinner can also be eaten while typing on a laptop (or an iPad, perhaps?).

The ‘disco ball idea’ reminds me of Tag Galaxy (

HyperCard stack would have been good with non-linear notes for a developing structure, but that’s now mostly obsolete.

There must be a three-dimensional solution to this. I’m intrigued by the technical possibilities...

Anonymous said...

"Gently, of course."

Gently, of course, is among those quintessentially Adelaidean qualities for which there are no eastern-states analogues.

Paradoxically, one especially fine BBC police drama fingers it.

Perplexing, but true.


Mindy said...

What about one of those recorder thingys that solicitors and the like use to dictate letters for their admin people? At least if you were using it at home you wouldn't feel so silly. Kel used one to record his sausage ideas in Kath and Kim. Not that that helps I know. But it saves getting up from dinner and going to the computer and it already exists. It may even already exist on your mobile phone if it has a record function...

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

These are all excellent suggestions. But they presume that I am a very great deal more organised and possessed of foresight than I actually am. Mindy, you're right about the iPhone (and what a wonderful gadget that is -- I once made notes for an entire book review on it while sitting in a hospital corridor waiting for news about the state of my father's heart). But I have Views on the many differences between the written and the spoken word -- I've always had great difficulty in translating something said in speech into sentences that I like.

As for getting the laptop anywhere near my dinner -- perish the thought. I hardly even let myself drink coffee anywhere near it.

Bernice said...

And God, "verily I shall give thee post-it notes and thou will be able to nut the whole damned thing out."

Pros - cheap, cheap enough to use up one note per point; their sticky habit allows the construction of patterns and indeed a matrix with a few bits of string and a sheet of polypropylene

Cons - the cats sit on them, leading to crucial point 5 being found under the camellia a month after the manuscript was sent in.

They now come in pads and every other conceivable stationery form, and indeed on OS Windows 7 I even have sticky notes on the desktop. Also a fan of OneNote - but that is back to relying on non-food compatible technologies.

Blessed be the B2 mechanical pen and the post-it note.

furious balancing said...

If you can train yourself to think out aloud then the iPhone has a voice memo app. Or you can just do what I do, and find a friend who just goes with the flow when it comes to my rather tangential style of conversation, fortunately [and sometimes unfortunately] he has a better memory than me, and will frequently remind me of something I have no recollection of uttering.

That's a fascinating anecdote about 5KA. I'm looking forward to the book!

Tatyana said...

Oh well, laptop and dinner wasn’t such a good idea.

Too many shared keyboards have made me immune to unsightly work habits. I shared a job with a female colleague once, we also shared an office and a computer, and I could almost recognise what she’d had for lunch the previous day. We were both keen to work without too many breaks so that we could leave early, and a few crumbs didn’t bother us.

I use my lovely shiny laptop now, but I still engage in elaborate gymnastics of stretched arms and twisted necks which allows me to eat my lunch and have a cup of coffee while working on screen. I’ll even have a plate of pasta for dinner while working if there’s something pressing. I’m so entrenched in my awful habits that I didn’t even recognise this would look reckless to most people.

And like furious balancing, I'm looking forward to the book; I haven't heard of the series, or the publisher.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Tatyana, after the champagne incident, the one that saw me plugging (when all else had failed) the old iMac keyboard into the eMac I had before I got this laptop, on account of how half a dozen of the keys were no longer working AT ALL, I have been a lot more careful about eating or drinking at the computer. Once you get a stubborn little crumb or a sticky drink stuck under a key it's good night Charlie. And of course with the laptop that's even more dire.

Zarquon said...

As for getting the laptop anywhere near my dinner -- perish the thought. I hardly even let myself drink coffee anywhere near it.

One simply hasn't lived until a cat has knocked a glass of Buller's Calliope Shiraz into one's $3000 MacBook Pro.

Emily said...

What it sounds like you are trying to do is akin to harnessing the wind. This is a fabulous subject, capturing as it seemingly does, the gap (or silences) between the written and the spoken word; the thought and it's documentation. How can the nebulous be wrestled with to become transparent on the page.

It's not the case that people from "eastern states" can't understand Adelaide. I would have a very different version from someone who lives in Adelaide, but as a reasonably frequent visitor the images are formed differently, almost like a kaleidescope view.

I'm looking forward to a book which can give me a more inwardly version of what makes Adelaide (and other areas of S.A) tick. I'll look at the other books in the series and see how differently they line up to the capital cities as a visitor sees them.

Helen` said...

One simply hasn't lived until a cat has knocked a glass of Buller's Calliope Shiraz into one's $3000 MacBook Pro.

Zarquon, what a terrible thing to happen. That was a seriously nice glass of wine.