Monday, November 14, 2011

Let me refresh your memory

Happy Monday, everyone!

On the recommendation of my new boss, I recently read Writing with Style by John R. Trimble. I hate to admit this, but I approached the book thinking I probably already knew everything it was going to try and teach me. And, you know what? I'm about 80% of the way through the book now, and I do know everything it's trying to teach me so far. After all, I've taken a lot of classes, I've read a lot of other books about writing, I've read a lot of fiction, I've written a lot, and I've learned a lot from fellow writers like many of you.

Still, an unexpected thing happened. Even though I didn't learn anything new, I noticed that the writing on my most recent stories and reports were better. This confused and frustrated me! I mean, I didn't learn anything new! Why was my writing getting better? I guess I had something to learn after all. Darn it.

Then, last week, a painfully obvious thing dawned on me. I think it came about after I spent the morning reading about neuroplasticity, which has to do with how our brains learn and retain short-term and long-term memory. It occurred to me that reading Writing with Style didn't necessarily teach me anything new, but it helped me to remember the things I already knew. It helped me to recall the information in a more conscious way so that I could make smarter decisions in my writing.

I think as writers one of the hardest things we have to do is to remember our own writing rules. (Our own rules--not necessarily the rules other people tell us we have to follow.) Most of the time we end up internalizing everything, and our writing feels more intuitive because of it. But there's some benefit in being able to recall what we're doing in a conscious way. I always feel a little pang of delight when I remember something I learned a long time ago. Our brains can't always recall everything immediately the way we wish they could. It's probably even more challenging for writers of long fiction. At least I know I've never been able to hold a whole book in my head at one time. I'm constantly rereading what I'm working on.

So, I guess I'm understanding the importance of reminders, the importance of relearning those things that we already know. It's probably a good thing that the community of bloggers often stumbles upon the same problems. Sometimes they probably serve as valuable reminders for other people. As for me, I'm resolving to take a more active role in refreshing my memory. I think I'll try and go back to basics on a more regular schedule.

P.S. Thanks to my mom making me sort through the old junk I was storing in her garage last night, I found about $200 worth of gift cards. Woohoo!


  1. I think those memory refreshers are particularly good while doing revisions. My synapses get so gunked up from reading my same lines over and over. Reading up on writing--or reading something really well written helps to de-clog my brain and my writing; not just the first draft, but editing, too!

  2. jbchicoine, you're absolutely right. I realize reading this stuff actually calms me down when I'm revising. It makes revising more systematic for me, at least partially, and that makes it more manageable.

  3. It's worth remembering to remember to read your old books on writing before you go out and buy a new book.

  4. On the one hand we have our standards (our accepted writing rules and goals and expectations) and on the other hand we have our actual working habits. It takes a long time, I think, for our standards to become habitual. It's like learning to play an instrument or doing anything else. The less often you actually do any particular thing, the less likely you are to remember how to do it (or that you should be doing it at all). I just realized I've done nothing but paraphrase our Dr Malasarn. But that's okay, because it reinforces the ideas, right?

    Anyway, this reinforcement/reminding of my goals etc is one reason, probably, why I like to read what other writers have said about writing. I'm forever reading interviews and Nabokov's "Lectures on Literature" and right now I'm reading O'Connor's collected letters and every few months I pick up one of Gardner's books and read a chapter at random. And stuff.

  5. Also, and this is entirely off-topic, I read an old fantasy novel called The Hobbit this weekend. I haven't looked at that book since, say, 1978 or so. It's really really great. I was expecting to be let down by the writing but it's so much better than I remembered.

  6. Good Idea!
    I feel I could really use some refreshers but I'm just having a world of trouble finding the time.

  7. Oooh, yay for gift cards!

    I love this post, Davin! I re-read John Gardner's The Art of Fiction at least once a year. Or I at least skim through it whenever I can. I should make a point to re-read it before major revisions on any book. I certainly have my favorite writing books, and that is one of them.

    Scott, I adore The Hobbit. And Lord of the Rings, as well. If I ever forget why, I just have to pick one of them up again. :)

    And I forget a lot of things a lot of the time. It's really frustrating.

  8. One of my favorite things about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is that the climax action of the main external conflict (killing Smaug or destroying the Ring) is not made by the protagonist. If these books were being written now, Tolkien would be told that Bilbo must kill the dragon, and Frodo must throw the Ring into the crack of Mount Doom. And they'd be lesser stories than they are.

  9. Domey, I agree with you. Revising can be so overwhelming. Reminders like this or learning new things can help put writing in order and give editing and revising a system. I still haven't quite worked out my own system...but I'm getting there.

  10. Scott, that is exactly why it is a happy, happy thing they were written then. Because as it's written now, LOTR would never get published by anyone big. It breaks far too many "rules", which is stupid, because it is the touchstone of epic fantasy. Publishing has issues.

  11. Or maybe it all goes back to society and what we think we want as readers and how that determines the economic setup. Who knows. I just wish people would start taking more chances and risks with what we call story.

  12. Awesome. I will have to pick up my old books on writing and reread!

  13. The problem with People In Big Publishing is that when they talk about "writing," they actually are talking about "selling." When they talk about "readers," they are actually talking about "buyers." As if the point of writing is to sell product, which means that the point of reading is to buy things, to stuff money into the gaping, hungry maw of the Big Six.

    Which is clearly not why people read, and not why people write.

  14. Scott, I wrote up a little rant, but I won't kill Davin's comment feed here, so I'll just email it to you. :)

  15. Excellent post and a good reminder.

    As to The hobbit and LOTR being published nowadays. I agree that they wouldn't. Yes, that says something about publishing and yes they are a business and do have to worry about the bottom line, but there are sooooo many readers nowadays who start but don't finish LOTR. Or they read it but skip the songs and "those one parts" I don't know which parts those are but enough other people do. Now whether publishing is reflecting the desires of the masses or the masses desires are being dictated by publishing I don't know.

  16. Martin, my suggestion is to buy the new book and shuffle the pages with your old books and forget that you did that and forget that you remember your old books but remember to read your mixed books to rediscover what you actually do remember and what you don't.

    Scott G.F., It's about reinforcement! And probably as we get better the new things we learn need to be reinforced newly and so we will always end up learning and our brains will stay strong and no one will get Alzheimer's!

    xoxo, Lack of time is always a pain, huh? I just force myself to prioritize my writing. My friends tend to get mad at me.

    Michelle, that's really great that you already do this. It's something I haven't done. I read Gardner's book probably ten years ago, and I remember learning a lot from it. But I haven't picked it up since.

    April, absolutely! And with every project there will be fixes that need to work out the system. But hopefully if we get the systematic stuff out of the way the rest won't feel as daunting.

    Amie, I'm sure that will make the writers of the old books very happy! :)

    And Michelle, you should feel free to rant and stray all you want here!

  17. Great reminder. Hmm, which books should I reread?

    Also, I so get that part about being proven that you're "wrong" as in why is it that even when you do know everything a book has to say, reading still impacts your writing. So annoying, isn't it? :)

  18. Now I'm curious to read that book. By the way, memory is indeed fascinating. It is so dynamic that we don't know what our mind will remember in the next few hours or days...

  19. I find myself writing better in certain areas when I read teaching posts too. Especially if I already know the tips; it seems my brain is more willing to accept the info if I've already agreed - then forgotten.

    Reminders pay off - at least for you they did Domey. Wow $200! I've moved too often and whittled down my storage too much to find anything interesting like that :(



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