Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ulysses, Scrivener and ConnectedText

In a very thoughtful blog entry, called Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jake Seliger explains why he finds Scrivener less useful than James Fallows seems to do. Starting from an article discussing James Joyce's use of index cards in giving a shape to his "Ulysses" that is independent of any linear plot line and resembles more the unity of a mosaic, he explains
if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

This resonates with me, even though I am not so sure that Scrivener is essentially designed to "help find a way to present formlessness." It has an outliner, after all, and it might better be characterized as providing a way out of formlessness to a linear plot or argument.

However, in doing so, it clearly pays more attention to the journey from the formless stuff than it does to the end result, i.e. the "linear plot." In fact, it does not even prescribe a linear plot or a sequential argument at all. This does not mean that it prevents one from reaching such an end or that one must "present formlessness" or that one is destined to place fragments in what appear to be "their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions."[1]

The makers of Ulysses, the model of Scrivener, point out correctly — it appears to me that no longer "text is written at once, in a single document. A story consisting of 200 pages results from fractions, starting points, discarded ideas and many more – all neatly distributed along a total of 800 pages, most likely with over 100 different documents, combined with notes, Post-Its, scribblings on the margins of numerous daily papers, beer covers, napkins and the back sides of photos." Ulysses, just as Scrivener, is designed to free the writer from the need to deliver and develop his text in predefined structures." Instead, it gives the writer the "ability to form his own preferred structures – both within the text and in organising things."[2]

Still, by blurring the distinction between research, "pre-writing," preliminary drafts, rough drafts and final product — or, perhaps better, by allowing one to do all these things in one and the same application, it tempts the user to spend more time on the preliminaries than the production of the final product. It "distracts," which, in the day of "distraction-free" software might appear to be a bad thing. People end up spending more and more time on particular small passages rather than "the whole thing." To be sure this is only a distraction — and it might not be an issue for everyone — but it would be a mistake to deny that this temptation exists.

Seliger uses DevonThink to structure his research, just as I use ConnectedText. This puts a wall between the two activities. And I am beginning to think that such a wall is a good thing, even though I think it needs to be "porous." For the last book, I used to different projects in ConnectedText: one for research, the other for writing. In the end, I exported the writing project to rtf files. This worked, but I wish I had not spent as much time with "word processing." Perhaps Ulysses will work better as an intermediate stage between ConnectedText and the Word Processor. But I don't not know yet.




1. He quotes from a paper by Walton Litz: "It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity." The note-sheets seem to him as "note cards."

2. See Welcome to Ulysses. In the spirit of open disclosure I should perhaps add that I bought Ulysses yesterday (at the price of $9.99 in Mac Applications store and wasted spent yesterday working with it on a long overdue contribution to a collection of essays. This largely contributed to the need to make explicit these musings. See also my earlier, not so complimentary post on the creators of Ulysses.

2 comments:

JSoroko said...

A word on behalf of index cards. While J. Edgar Hoover was getting his law degree at night (possibly at George Washington University), he worked by day as a cataloging clerk at the Library of Congress. The FBI records system - which were used for purposes good and bad, on which the historical record is clear - was based on index cards into the 1970's. The basic report - a "302" - would be typed, and the agent would then take a red pen and circle each "tag" (the word we'd use now), and for each one index cards, using carbon paper, would be made up and filed.

MK said...

I am all for index cards. Used them myself for a long time.
Manfred