This started out as a longer post that got into some reasonably scientific brain-talk, which wound up confusing me as I wrote. I shudder to think what the jumble would have looked like to another reader. But my fundamental premise for the day remains the same: writers need good memories, and technology is currently making it easy to let that particular faculty slip.
The first assumption there, that writers need good memories, may be prone to misinterpretation — I’m not necessarily talking about being able to remember a minor character’s name without a bunch of finger-snapping “I know this one,” though that can save you some time too; I’m talking about how well your brain can capture written and spoken words as it processes them. Your “voice” — the habits of phrase and syntax that you default to as you write — is basically a hodgepodge of everything your brain remembers about How Words Go Together, and the more you remember, the richer your voice will be.
There are two basic ways to strengthen your habitual voice: exposing yourself to as many sources of English language as possible (another post on that Friday), and remembering more of what you read/hear. Unfortunately, recall is becoming a less and less useful skill. In some ways, that’s no bad thing — education, for example, is slowly wallowing its way toward being research-skill focused rather than rote-memorization focused, which will undoubtedly make primary school more fun, and make that guy who knows fifty digits of pi even less impressive. But it also means that we don’t train our brains to remember details anymore. Phone numbers are stored automatically, passwords are remembered by our web browsers (and can be e-mailed to us even if we do forget them); Facebook tells us when all our friends’ birthdays are.
Breaking down the different types of memory is where the first draft got muddled, so I’ll skip straight to the simple conclusions: you’ll be a better writer if you stop relying on machines to remember things for you. This doesn’t mean that you have to go out and learn some sort of total-recall memory system (though there are some fascinating ones, including methods dating back to the Renaissance and even before) — in fact, one of the best things you can do for your writing skills is get in the habit of writing things down. Not just stories and letters and other prose, but lists, numbers, and anything else that you might rely on a phone or a computer to remember for you. Just the act of putting pencil to paper activates your memory, as does reading off what you’ve written. This is how Grandma remembers twenty different friends’ phone numbers by heart — she read them all off a scrap of paper until she didn’t have to anymore.
Since big changes are hard to enact (and don’t I know it), here are a few things you might try slipping into your daily life that can help get your memory back in gear. Try one or two for a couple months, half a year, something like that, and let me know how it goes for you:
- Stop finding people’s names in your cell phone and pressing the “call” button. Look at the number instead, and punch it in manually.
- Don’t tell your browser to remember passwords for websites. Write them down somewhere, or better still, choose mnemonics for each site (a password for a banking site could include the $ sign in some way that’s meaningful to you, for example — mnemonics drawn from personal experiences will also be harder to guess, adding some security)
- Use a pen-and-paper datebook rather than a computer-based calendar system or a smartphone to remind you of important dates.
- Do crosswords, play cards, go to quiz night at the pub, or do something else for fun that requires your memory in an active, involved way.
- Whenever possible, do minor math (figuring tips, etc.) in your head or on paper, rather than using a calculator. Remembering the way numbers add up and internalizing common numeric patterns uses the same part of your brain that remembers how words go together.
- Read and listen to a wide variety of English usage — more on this tomorrow, so stay tuned!