Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Stanislaw Lem on Note-taking

Stanislaw Lem reports in an autobiographical essay, translated as "Reflections on My Life" (in Stanislaw Lem, MicroWorld. Writings on Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanavich, 1982, pp. 1-44) that his "method of creating" or "behavior as a writer" slowly changed during his life. In his early years, he was motivated by "the spontaneity of the beginning." But later his approach shifted towars first "gaining a basic idea, a conception, an imaginative notion ... I started to produce an increasing number of notes, fictitious encyclopedias, and small additional ideas" (p. 23). He then wrote at first "only brief synopses or, again, critical reviews of sociological treatises, scientific papers, and technical reference works"--which often, but not always, had their context in the imaginary world he was developing. He describes the relation of his notes to the literary work in different ways. One of them is as follows:
A cow produces milk--that is certain--and the milk doesn't come from nothing. Just as a cow must eat grass in order to produce milk, I have to read large ammounts of genuine scientific literature of all kinds--i.e. literature not invented by me--and the final product, my writing, is as unlike the intellectual food as milk is unlike grass (p. 25).

I think that is the way it should be. Notes are fodder. If the final product of one's research retains the character of the notes upon which it is based, something has gone wrong.

So much is sure. The question that remains to be answered is how the material gets transformed into something new and original.

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