Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Remembrance of Really Important Stuff

I'm currently reading David Lodge's classic The Art of Fiction, and it reminds me that I have absolutely nothing to add to the great body of work on how to write. Some of that great body is actually great writing itself, so why bother?

Well, I keep at it mainly to remind myself of what to do as I work on my next book. Speaking of which, I wish to say a few words about memory. Here they are: Memory is important.

If this seems obvious, I refer you to the recent hyperbole that claims the Internet effectively functions as an extension of our memory, that we no longer need to actually keep any information in our heads, but merely need to know how to look it up. To me, this is not only idiotic, it is dangerous. It is rather like saying that the existence of pharmacies means we longer need to take care of our health—we can always go to the drugstore and get the appropriate medication.

OK, that's a terrible analogy, or at least an imprecise one. The point is there has always been a difference between reference works and actual knowledge. For a nonfiction writer, the distinction is essential. There's simply no substitute for keeping lots of information in your head.

If I really must explain why, let me simply say that research is not simply a process of transferring data from a source to your word-processing files (or manuscripts, as we once called them). Rather, you must understand a fact's significance as you research, which is only possible if you remember previous facts you have encountered. To understand your research, you must see connections between data, which requires you to keep a great deal of information in your head. Indeed, if you have a good memory, certain facts will leap up at you as significant, in light of what you already know—facts that eluded other writers, or were discounted by them.

When you write a biography, you are in the process of painting a richly detailed, realistic landscape. If all of your previous brushstrokes disappear from  your vision every time you make a new one, the final picture will be utterly incoherent. But if you keep the whole in your mind as you work, it stands a chance of emerging as an organic, authentic, and recognizable whole when you're done.

So to hell with that "the Internet is my memory" crap: Know what you're talking about, and you might actually make some sense.

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