MORE THOUGHTS ABOUT THINKING, MEMORY, WRITING,
I think a great deal about thinking—primarily because I have long been conscious of my cognitive deficiencies and have spent my life searching for workarounds.
I wasn’t diagnosed with my particular form of dyslexia until my early fifties. When a child, I became accustomed to concealing my inadequacies—mental and otherwise—because I was ashamed, and it seemed to me that both my mother, and life in general, would pounce on any weaknesses—and I came across generally as pretty intelligent.
I was—and I remain so—but being intelligent doesn’t mean you don’t have cognitive weaknesses. It does help you to conceal them rather better—and to appreciate that other people have their inadequacies too.
On top of that, my mother was doctor averse. She didn’t trust the profession, loathed what they cost, and her own experiences with them hadn’t worked out too well.
She had tried sending me to shrinks when I was four and five to make me more biddable—I was always a fiercely independent child—and when that, and sustained violence, had failed (and had nearly resulted in my death), packed me off to boarding school to sink or swim (and to my grandmother or aunts for most of my vacations). The first nine years of my life were pretty tough. The situation eased greatly when I was about nine.
- My mother married my much-loved step-father, Alfred Lyons—a man about a decade younger than her—who succeeded in calming her down (for a while). Eventually, predictably, and tragically, she would destroy him. I knew from my early teens that this would happen—and that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. When I heard that Alfred had died prematurely—under decidedly grim circumstances—part of me died too.
- I was removed from my first boarding school, St.Gerard’s, in Ireland—where I had been younger and smaller than my peers—so bullied unmercifully—and sent to a boarding school in England, where I was the same age as my peers.
- I grew, taught myself unarmed combat from books, discovered I could defend myself more than effectively—and bullying ceased to be a problem.
- I started to thrive academically—and ended up academic top of my prep school.
All I knew, prior to that diagnosis of dyslexia, was that although my brain worked extraordinarily well in some ways, it couldn’t cope in others. For instance, I can’t remember telephone or car tag numbers, seize up when faced with forms, and couldn’t remember my character’s names when I started to write.
Hard to believe, but true. A character might start as Mary and evolve into Julia because I wanted to keep writing and was too impatient to check back. Eventually, I learned to keep a list of their names pinned up. Over time, my cognitive abilities—where writing is concerned—have improved dramatically. Where other matters are concerned, the less said the better.
If you think that doesn’t sound too bad, reflect that I’m only giving you a sample. Overall, my life would be vastly easier if I was decidedly less cognitively gifted—and flawed.
It truly amazes me that I can write at all—and I don’t mean a short school essay. Short, relatively simple essays don’t put too much of a strain upon the memory—and originality, style, humor,and technique can distract from other deficiencies.
Books—particularly the kind of long books I am partial to writing—are another matter entirely. They typically run to over 400 pages, and though my writing style is relatively clear (or so I hope) are packed full of plot surprises, twists, turns and characters to the point where it must seem to the reader that I must have an extraordinary memory to keep track of it all.
The truth is, of course, that I don’t have to keep track of it all—all the time—except in a broad sense. I merely have to anchor myself to a broad outline—and I am pretty good at thinking holistically—and then focus on the 2,000 words I intend to do that day.
We writers tend to think in words whereas readers think in pages. 2,000 words is roughly six pages (depending on typeface, paper size etc.).
I also rely heavily on memory joggers of one sort or another which capitalize on the fact that I am very responsive to either visual or auditory stimulus. Give me the title of a book and I may well not be able to recall too much about it—except in a general sense. Show me the physical book and my recall rockets. Similarly, if I have interviewed someone, my recall based upon my notes alone, will be modest. On the other hand, if I hear the sound of their voice—typically by starting to replay the recording—the content of the whole interview will come flooding back.
It would appear that my problem is less with my memory, as such, than with my searching mechanism—which, all too often, requires prompting. It searches well enough, but has a tendency to forget what to search for—and when. Some ideas are hard to classify and go into my brain without a tag attached. Trying to find a nameless idea is a squirrely pastime. We are back to memory joggers.
Over the years I have tried a wide variety of techniques to cope with this need, but have never found a complete answer—and doubt I ever will. Working in a book-lined study helps because all those spines are a constant source of inspiration. I also use ring-binders with labeled spines for much the same reason. Out of sight has a disconcerting tendency to be out of mind where I am concerned.
I am not averse to other techniques. I have long relied heavily on notes and databases—though I am an indifferent note taker. I tend to focus too much on the subject if I am interviewing someone—and, unfortunately, do not know shorthand. Recording solves that problem.
As for databases, they mostly work well enough in their different ways, but they function more as a memory extension than as part of the planned structure. In short, having the necessary data buried deep in my memory or database isn’t enough. I need to be reminded—frequently and thoroughly—to retrieve it and use it in a timely manner.
Checklists are an obvious solution—and I use them with some degree of success. However, unlike a Gannt Chart, for instance, they don’t visualize time—except as a series of dates—and they don’t lend themselves naturally to being viewed from different perspectives, and aren’t particularly easy to modify. True, you can cut and paste to change priorities, but the structure is essentially linear and connected.
So is there a better way—or a more complementary way? I say ‘complementary’ because I have no intention of giving up check-lists. They don’t do the whole job, but they do what they do exceedingly well.
I am increasingly beginning to think that the Kanban approach may be the solution. It displays tasks as if on a matrix of index cards. It can be used in a wide variety of ways, but the way I have in mind—for a story, for instance--the vertical would be characters and the horizontal would be time. Each card would represent an action and include a sense of place and any other relevant information. Where computerized index cards are concerned, you are not limited by space. You can drill down for all associated detail—including graphics, and multimedia.
For a publishing project, the vertical might be an action that needed to be done, the horizontal would be the time, and the card might indicate the specifics of the action and the status.
Kanban started off as a simple system used to help with Japanese lean production, but has proved to be so flexible and effective that there are now numerous variations (both physical and computerized).
Ironically, back when I was in business in the early Seventies running an operating selling adding machines and calculators, I controlled our entire marketing operation with the equivalent of a Kanban board without knowing the name at the time. I worked out the approach from first principles and implemented it using physical T-Cards (see below). T-cards display only the header, but extra information can be displayed on the concealed part.
I seem to be going full circle except that this time I will be using the computer equivalent. That said, I may be tempted to try the physical.
It is simple, powerful—and it works.
I regard the fact that I can and do write—and deal with considerable complexity—as something of a miracle and a triumph of the human spirit.
I never cease to wonder at it. From my perspective, being acutely and painfully aware of my cognitive limitations, I’m doing the impossible.
It is a truly exhilarating feeling.
But, I’ll get used to it—and take it for granted.
No, I won’t. I’ll continue to give thanks every waking day. It’s a wonderful thing to overcome one’s deficiencies (some of them) to achieve one’s goal.
To be able to write is really all I have ever wanted to do in life.
But, don’t be fooled. Writing may sound like a modest ambition. It probably doesn’t encompass either fame or fortune, for instance.
Maybe not—but writing is a license to explore every facet of our existence. It is the key to high adventure—and that is what I dreamed of—more than anything--when I was a prisoner in boarding school.
What do I seek when on my adventures?
Gold for the mind—insight. And I’m finding it.
Is it everything I hoped for?
It is way, way, better. It is a rich, deep, profound feeling that I have never been able to explain adequately—or describe in words.
I never will.
VOR words 1,617.