Thinking on Paper

I’m in the midst of writing a paper on theories of myth for school. The topic I chose is ridiculously ambitious and more than any reasonable student would have opted to do. But I’m crazy, so, y’know.

There’s a huge amount of information that I’m trying to synthesize, a whole lot of stuff that I want to touch on and talk about, and I’m having a hard time figuring out where to start, and how to organize it all. In order to try to figure it out, I started just writing down ideas and notes and possible configurations. And while it hasn’t quite come together yet, just putting things on paper (and white boards and index cards) has helped me visualize how it’s going to turn out, and in turn, how I’m going to start.

All of which is, as it turns out, a throwback to one of the research resources I’m using for this very paper.

Psychologists Keith Oatley from the University of Toronto and Maja Djikic from Harvard wrote a paper called Writing as Thinking, in which they discuss how putting things into print helps us think. Writing things down externalizes the thoughts, and once they’re externalized and made concrete — unchanging, no longer a chaotic mass of thought within our minds — we can start to manipulate them, consider them from an outside point of view, and generally get the better of them. It allows us to gain new insights on our own thought and take that thought farther.

This is a good thing. I often find myself trying to get somewhere with a particular thought and being unable to do anything with it — always coming back to the same place, going around and around in circles. Externalizing the thought lets me stop that cycle, and go somewhere new with it.

This is certainly what happened while working on my paper. Once I had put some ideas down, I could try to manipulate them, see where they might lead and how they might react with one another.

The same thing happens when I’m writing fiction. When I’m trying to figure out a plot or a character arc, I find it immensely helpful to write it down. Even if it’s just a few thoughts, a few sentences of plot, it lets me look at it from an outside perspective and lets me better connect other, still internalized, thoughts to it. I did this a lot when working on my novel — the plot gets complex at times, and I needed to make sure everything was going to work out how I wanted it to. There’s not enough space in my brain for all those thoughts at once.

So, Oatley and Djikic’s paper helped my research in more than one way. Incidentally, the two scholars — along with a number of others — run a blog at all about the psychology of fiction and writing.

I now have some idea of what the paper’s going to actually look like. But the mass of information is still giving me trouble. Perhaps I should just start externalizing, just start typing, and see where it takes me. I can always come back and edit.

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  1. “There‚Äôs not enough space in my brain for all those thoughts at once.” — great! so true! I’m often surprised by writers who claim they work through everything in their minds so that, when they do begin writing, it “just comes.” I’ve had to attribute that to different learning styles, but I do think there’s something that takes place between mind, arm, hand, pen, and now with keyboard.
    Thanks for the onfiction site! I’m enjoying your musings. Thought-provoking.

  2. Pingback: Whatever it takes « Words and Things

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