There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. I could talk about wrestling matches with our favorite ebook distributor, or I could talk about the temperature outside, which leads directly to the temperature in here, and onto my chilly typing digits. (Although we can only call it typing in the gentlest sense of the word) Instead, I’ll talk about a recent heart procedure, not for its own sake – I’m fine, and this is not my first whirl around the cath lab -but for its tendency to force large reevaluations into my life scheme, which leads us finally to brains.
I don’t have enough.
Or too much. Or both at the same time.
My whole life, I’ve been able to carry around all the stuff in my head – in my head. This year, for the first time, my mental filing cabinet has been crammed full, and that is a surprisingly hard thing to realize. I mean, a guy like me is used to coming in last in a footrace, or a bike ride, or a posthole digging contest… Slow and steady wins the race. But my brain, it usually bounces along just fine. Right now, I’m mind-holding about six novels, twenty or so partial novels, a sarcastic self help book (blind leading the blind there), some story ideas, an irritating pile of news, six dogs, three cats, a half dozen things that need to be fixed, ten aircraft designs in various stages of completion, another dozen graphics, Windows patch Tuesday, a Linux box that won’t update, my best friend’s newly pulled tooth, my editor’s health, nylon M3 spacers, a lovely wife, and… Well, you get the idea.
Because of my annoying tendency to remember entirely too much, I’ve discovered that I have no system for offloading some of that mental junk and then retrieving it later. I’ve always been aware of this lack, and I’ve tried all the obvious solutions at one time or another, but only with a little life-scale crisis to push me have I really stopped and examined the problem.
Lists. Now here’s an eminently practical solution. My wife makes lists like a champ. I distinctly remember a certain wormy small town mayor showing me his proudly developed list system that fit entirely inside his wallet, complete with the tubular ink core of a ballpoint pen. There is no reason why a few good lists wouldn’t work, but for me, they don’t. As a subset, there’s the TODO list, which again makes perfect sense. I bet the majority of you can rock a TODO list like nobody’s business. The TODO, as I vaguely understand it, takes the master list, sorts it based on some kind of priority system, and magically yields a systematic process of getting through the day. Magnificent! My closest approach is a thing an old friend calls an “Intenda.” I intend to do certain things every day, but the order is subject to conditions, mood, and the phase of the moon.
As a writer of sorts, I should be able to pick up a writing instrument and jot down something worth reading again later. I own several nice blank journals that are just begging to be filled with words. Sometimes I make it to page three before the horror show of my left-handed penmanship scares me away. Not only do I want to avoid desecrating such nicely bound paper, I do not want to look back inside, lest my noxious scrawls split me into multiple personalities or somesuch.
Calendars. I hear they work well. Again, my wife is a paragon example of how to effectively use them to manage her time. For me, calendars are a good excuse to hang cool pictures on the wall. Incidentally, the only real struggles in my own writing involve keeping the timeline straight. Coincidence? I think not.
And the “list” goes on… Apparently, good record keeping systems are learned behavior, and I’ve managed to avoid learning any of them. So, here I go, stepping backwards, looking at the big picture, and thinking about how I think.
What has worked in the past? Let’s see. I took notes in college, just like everyone else. I took them, but I never used them. Probably that handwriting thing again. I found that I could just remember the professor writing on the board when test time came. No, it’s not photographic. Maybe it’s cinematic. Later, I ran a business, and I made lists. Yep. But then I remembered everything on them and, once again, never looked at those lists. I’m a lousy lister. The only thing I hate more than my own lists is tax forms, but’s that another blog post. I had one of those day planner thing-a-ma-bobs, in the pre-digital age, with the calendar pages that I changed religiously every January, but its main purpose was to hold the multitude of business cards I picked up along the way. I still have it, and it’s still useless. I love that stuff, like Moleskins and cool binders, cool bags and containers of any kind, but I don’t use them. Later, I had a stable of organizer software, which I did manage to use here and there. Contact management is a big deal when you’re in business for yourself. A careful bit of pondering about this phase of my existence begins to reveal the hint of a solution.
There were two pieces of software, which some of you may remember. ACT! and Ecco. Both were intended to keep us all organized. Act! was a very buttoned down, database-y thing which held my toes to the fire until I put things where ACT! thought they belonged. Ecco, on the other hand, was very loose and configurable to relate things the way I wanted. Guess which one I actually used. If Ecco existed today, I’d probably still use it.
Sometime later, I found mind mapping as a concept and a specific software tool called The Brain. I bought it way back when it was $50 and I used the heck out of it. It was the loosest, most connectable way of storing information short of a wall-size piece of paper and colored markers I had ever found. It still exists today, and it still looks great, but it also costs a lot more now, much more than I think it’s worth. The value equation looks like owning a million dollar car. How can you have a million dollars worth of transportation in one car? To add insult to injury, they seem to have gone the subscription route with the supporting services, so it’s like you never own anything at all. I hate that. Ixna on the ainbray.
But still, we’re making progress. Mind mapping works for me. Looser is better. I have no trouble seeing a wide panorama. I just need a way to connect the pieces until it boils down to something akin to a list, one that I can revisit reliably and has no connection to my own handwriting. By the way, I had one of those 3rd grade teachers who tried to make me right-handed with the swift strike of a ruler. My handwriting is clearly a result of post traumatic stress disorder, thanks to the well named Mrs. Moody.
With that tiny revelation in my pocket, I went looking for other mind mapping software with three requirements. Three being the number of things I can keep in my limited short term memory at one time. First and foremost, it must be comfortable to use. There are plenty of mind map solutions out there these days. Many of them are web-based, which I eliminate on the principle of wanting my data where I can see, control, and delete it without paying for a one-use subscription. Yes, I understand the value of seamless group collaboration, but it’s not a priority for me. The voices in my head communicate without a web service.
Second, it must be available on all my devices, and third, it must synch with those devices. So being an Android person, I started there. I quickly ruled out options using rules two and three and found a solution that was very comfortable on both PC and Android, a very elegant piece of software called SimpleMind. Appropriate name, I think. It does all the mind mapping tricks without trying to take over the world – or my PC. It synchs through Dropbox using very small files, so I can keep using my free subscription. As a bonus, it will import files from Freemind, which is the Linux mind mapper of choice. All connected, yes.
Leg two of the self-revelation stool is the use of containers. While my desk is generally a disaster zone, I tend to be very (maybe obsessively) organized inside my computer. This is especially true of the shallow end of the system, the files and programs I use all the time. Beyond that, the computer slopes off into a vast ocean of files that go back to the dawn of computing. I’ve done a lot of digital work in the past 25 years, and 99% of it is still living on a hard drive somewhere. It may sound stupid, but I have a hard time ignoring the deep end of the pool. It creates mental weight in the same way that having too much physical clutter does. I need boundaries. I solved it for writing a year ago. I write directly to a fast flash drive and back that up into the hard drive ocean. Just having that physical container takes the weight off of my brain.
Trivia: I have 1.87G of files in my writing folder.
As you probably know, I have another job. I made the mistake of mixing the shallow end of those files with my writing files on the same <GASP!> container. My own particular brand of OCD has problem with that. Now that I understand it, I can get another container for non-writing work. A little more thought reveals that I basically live with three containers. Writing, other work, and life. Three containers. My short term memory is able, just barely, to cope with that.
Leg three involves the very specific case of writing, which – my recent publishing rate notwithstanding – is worth its own category and tools. I always try to eliminate the overhead in a system, because I love to work, but I hate to prepare to work. I hate the part that involves finding and digging out all the things I need to get to work. (I also hate putting stuff away at the end, thus the condition of my desk). Renewal was written in good old Microsoft word. For a program that has been in development for half my life, that thing is nothing but overhead. The sensible control scheme is now buried in the Ribbon(tm) so writing a long piece of any kind feels like an endless series of digging things up. Plus, even when I’m not digging, that Ribbon(tm) is staring at me, as if daring me to go looking for some obscure formatting option. Then, when it’s time to edit a single file of novel length, the best way to get around is using the Find function, which means I’m constantly searching my own work. That, my friends, is why I’m even more bald than I was before Renewal.
The solution was easy, and reasonably priced as well. It’s a beautiful shining gem of software called Scrivener from these fine folks. I use it for two reasons. It has a natural way of breaking a novel down into manageable sections, which it will happily assemble for me at the end. Scrivener has a mode that eliminates everything on the screen except for the page I’m filling, and as a bonus, it keeps my cursor right in the middle of the screen. No more writing at the bottom and scrolling to the top. In that mode, it’s as close to zero overhead as software gets. Those are my reasons, but there are a lot more features for different kinds of writers, writers who keep lists, writers who use index cards, writers who want every last piece of supporting information bundled up in one place. It’s awesome for that kind of writer! Unfortunately, those things all look and behave like lists. Needless to say, I ignore all the shiny side buttons in Scrivener.
However, the developers seem to know that weird people like me exist, and they already have the solution for the list-averse. They make another piece of software called Scapple. What is Scapple, you ask? It’s a FREAKING MIND MAP for WRITERS! Write stuff anywhere and start connecting it any way you want. Then, Scapple will pump those freeform notes over into Scrivener. Beautimous! Heavenly! I just found it, and I’m cranked. Can you tell?
If you’re still with me, and I wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t, what’s my point? My point is something I have said to a lot of writers who want to know how to write. Writing is about brain management. Since my own brain has been spilling over in recent months, I’m trying to take my own advice. Where are my lists, and notes, and calendars? You’re reading them. The only place it all simmers down into something worthwhile is right here on the page. Everywhere else is interconnected chaos.
Thanks for reading.