So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.
I’m reminded of Rachel Leow’s great 2008 post Only Collect:
Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately. You’re five years old. Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”; collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof. That is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way. (The present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).
Steven Johnson has written about his writing process several times over the past decade. He’s an indiscriminate collector too, and he uses software (specifically DEVONthink) to organise it and reveal unexpected connections, which help direct his books and articles:
For the past three years, I’ve been using tools comparable to the new ones hitting the market, so I have extensive firsthand experience with the way the software changes the creative process. (I have used a custom-designed application, created by the programmer Maciej Ceglowski at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and now use an off-the-shelf program called DEVONthink.) The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.
Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.
What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.