Sunday, April 7, 2013

Writing as Thinking

I have several times discussed or offered my prejudices on whether writing by hand or typewriter or word processor makes a significant difference to the outcome. These questions are embedded in the wider question of whether the tools we use in writing make a difference to what is written. This question about specific tools is impossible to answer. Answers to the wider question seem to be easier. I recently read Writing as Thinking by Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic. It understands writing "as thinking that uses paper or other media to externalize and manipulate symbolic expression," and comes to the conclusion that externalization makes a big difference. Writing on paper or a screen augments mere subjective thought processes. Indeed, it seems to make them possible in the first place.

The paper expands the views proposed by Flower and Hayes that writing is a cognitive process by drawing attention to the fact that one of the most important things in thinking by writing has to do with the easy availability of what has been written already. A "writer’s reading of the text generated so far," as they put it, is crucial. In order to explicate this point, they refer to
the experience of a well-known author of detective stories, Howard Engel, who suffered a small stroke that made him unable to read. Words other than the very smallest could not be directly understood. He had to sound each one out, letter by letter, to know what it was. But the stroke spared his ability to write. His diagnosis was alexia without agraphia. His most recent novel, Memory Book (Engel, 2005), was written following this stroke. It is about Engel’s private detective, Benny Cooperman, who suffers a blow to the head that produces the same brain damage as that of his author. Completing the novel was a formidable task (p. 14).
The task was so formidable that he could complete it only with the help of several editors. "He said: 'It gave me a chance to stare it
[the whole book] in the face, which was something I couldn’t do for myself.'"[1]

Let me call what Engel lost the "editing function." It appears to me, notwithstanding the claims of those who advocate spontaneous writing, that the editing function is present already when you are just writing your first draft (using a pencil, a typewriter, or a computer). We are constantly trying to make sense of what we are presently writing in terms of what we have written already. The more we write, the more difficult this becomes. But it is necessary for writing as thinking, and, for that matter, for thinking as writing.

Oatley and Djikic say many interesting things about this process by "explor[ing] the idea that writing as thinking was associated with the rise of the novel and short story" (p. 17). I would have preferred it, if they had also used other genres, like philosophy, science, or, more generally, non-fiction. They are right: "Flaubert’s methods offer a large leap beyond the idea of Hayes and Flower (1986) of writing as planning, sentence generation, and revising." This is precisely what one would have expected (if Hayes and Flower are right). They believe that they have revealed "literary writing as offering models for the reader to construct that can be successively and sometimes even simultaneously experienced partly in language and partly as emotionally imbued intuition" (p. 24). Nice ... perhaps. But what about writing as thinking? What does the 'editing function" show specifically about thinking.

I have to think some more how all of this is related to note-taking in which the "chance to stare the whole ... into the face" must still wait. Yet, the idea of some whole cannot be completely absent—or so it seems to me.

1. I am going to get a copy of this book.


Anonymous said...

I find your musings on this subject fascinating. One aspect (well, I say one, but it's more than that, really) of this whole 'writing as ideation' question that has interested me for years is the closely related issue of ideation in different languages, i.e. how an individual formulates an idea in one language, and how that differs from the way another individual may formulate a very similar/identical idea in another language. Of course this becomes even more interesting if you analyse the way the same individual writes in two different languages, assuming said individual has a bilingual grasp of both. I'm sure Joseph Conrad would provide inspiring examples of this - but alas, I don't read Polish.

However, I do believe (and please forgive me if I'm wrong!) that despite your astonishing English, you are actually German(?), in which case I'm sure you already understand precisely what I'm talking about: how a German person (for example) chooses to formulate an idea - i.e. his/her mental visualisation of the linguistic structure , but also, perhaps more importantly, approach to the process of ideation - is very different from the way an English or American person would formulate the same idea. It's too crude to describe - in the traditional way - as nominal vs. verbal, but that description does provide a starting point, albeit an irritating and inadequate one.

In written language, you observe this discrepancy in the fundamental processes of linguistic expression all the time (as a DE-EN translator, this is a source of growing fascination for me). And you also find it in spoken language - although the latter is much more fluid and affected (in ways that are just as fascinating) by aural/oral borrowing that may not necessarily be reflected in the speaker's written language; the way somebody speaks does not necessarily reflect the way they write, and vice versa.

Great topic!

MK said...

hank you very much for these comments. Yes, i was born in Germany, finished high school and some semesters at University. But I have been living most of my life in North America, got a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. here, and taught here for most of my life. I am no longer a German (but Canadian) citizen.

Don't know about translating from one language to another in thinking. George Steiner has interesting ideas about this. See After Babel which you probably know. I am not sure whether I agree with him, but more about that later.

You might also enjoy his interview in the Paris Review here.