Writing Right with Dmitri: State-Dependent Skills

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Writing Right with Dmitri: State-Dependent Skills

Editor at work.

As everyone knows if they've seen that movie, Dalton Trumbo liked to write in the bathtub. I would never try to do that. Water would short out my computer, and besides, I take showers. But we've all heard of these famous writers who couldn't work unless they had the 'right conditions': a specific kind of pen, pencil, typewriter, whatever. A particular desk. Their favourite genre of background music. Others disagree with this approach, notably EB White, who said he did his work in the living room, with the whole family marching in and out all day. He added, 'A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.' So that's Dalton Trumbo told, I guess.

I'm not very concerned with these so-called 'writers' rituals'. I'm fine as long as someone doesn't come up to me when I'm in the middle of a sentence and say, 'Hey, what do you want for dinner?' This is because the structure of words in my head now collapses in a heap as I try to juggle one more thought ('Dinner? I was thinking about Teddy Roosevelt…'). I'm a wuss that way.

As I see it, though, the main danger of this ritualistic writing is that, because writing is a skill, you put yourself in danger of state-dependent learning. The eminent authority Wikipedia defines 'state-dependent learning' as

…the phenomenon through which memory retrieval is most efficient when an individual is in the same state of consciousness as they were when the memory was formed.

At least, that's how Wikipedia defines it today. Who knows what it will say tomorrow? Unlike the Edited Guide, Wikiality is in a constant state of quantum flux.

But I will explain state-dependent learning a bit, and give you some of my 'expert advice' (patent pending) on how to avoid same. You can thank me or tell me off in the comments section, as usual.

State-dependent learning happens when you train your brain to recall a memory or skill only when a certain set of mental conditions are met. When you set up the conditions – just like those writers with their favourite pencils – you may think you're helping yourself along. But that sort of thing can come back to bite you in the corpus callosum.

Did you ever hear of the student who spent four years getting a degree in computer science, while at the same time nursing a dangerously high-level drug habit? Afterwards, he went into rehab, with splendid results – only to find out that he couldn't remember anything he'd learned at university. It happens, folks, and that's state-dependent learning. All those drunken writers you know about? Ditto. They thought they were 'more creative' when they were three sheets to the wind. Instead, they'd just trained their brains not to cough up the skill set until they'd had a few highballs. This is not only counterproductive, but it ought to make you feel silly.

State-dependent memory can be a good thing. After all, you may not need that information until the situation pops up again. Take Proust (please). We all know this story, right? It's absolutely the only page most of us have read of À la recherche du temps perdu. The one about the madeleine. Eating a certain pastry with coffee brought back a flood of memories to the author, who used to really like these pastries. In other words, the memories were colour-coded in his mind, and the tab was the madeleine.

About once a month, I have dinner with some older German Americans. They've all been living in the US for at least three decades. They miss speaking the language they grew up with, so we get together for a German-speaking evening. At least, in theory. I find that, while I'm perfectly willing to talk about anything and everything in German, they usually lapse into English as soon as the topics turn to present-day events and plans. This is even true for the 80-year-old lady who speaks English with a very heavy accent. The reason for this lapse is simple: they didn't use German to talk about Walmart, their grandkids' experiences in high school, or local events before, so they can't find the words to say those things now. These native speakers become as frustrated as intermediate learners when they can't find the right way to say what they mean.

But if I steer the conversation around to asking them about their memories – what things were like back in the day – they become fluent again. I learn things, and they experience satisfaction. The door to the memory is also the door to the vocabulary. Does that mean that language is pretty much a state-dependent skill? You betcha. Try speaking a language that nobody else in the room knows, and you'll see. (You can do it, but you have to imagine you're speaking to an invisible friend who is fluent in that language.)

State-dependent memory also plays a part in PTSD. It's why a sudden loud noise will make a returned soldier, an injured first responder, or a refugee from a war zone suddenly behave erratically. They are reliving the memory summoned up by the triggering signal. It's the unfortunate flip side to the madeleine.

So how do we prevent our writing skills from getting buried in the state-based memories? I suggest we learn from Quakers and Zen Buddhists. Both of these groups practice meditation, which requires changing mental states. Quakers do it sitting around in the meeting house, a low-distraction place. Quaker authors like Elton Trueblood have pointed out that it's natural at first to find it hard to change mental states. They recommend that you, get this, 'don't panic!' They suggest that you allow the random thoughts to float on through the surface of your mind, confident that you will shortly settle down and fall into the necessary light trance. I've done it, it works. (But then, I taught myself this same technique in primary school: I felt guilty about it, because I thought it was 'day-dreaming'.)

Zen Buddhist masters tell us that we should be able to meditate in a busy train station. I'm so literal, I've tried it, and again, it works. EB White could probably have done it, because of his years of practice writing in the most-trafficked area of his house.

Now here's what I recommend: practice your writing techniques in different environments. Some of you already do this, what with your notebooks and writing in coffee shops. Good for you. Now take it a step further. Write at the NASCAR race. Write beside the lake. Write wherever you are. If you can't write in a notebook or on an electronic tablet, write in your head. Practice switching from your everyday voice to your 'writing voice' – y'all don't think I talk like this to my relatives, do you? – and back again. Sooner or later, I might even figure out how to answer the question, 'What do you want for dinner?' without losing the thread of my sentence.

What this does is to ensure that you don't lose anything by changing states. Don't be like my journalist friend, who told me, 'I used to know that shortcut to my house, but then they changed the billboard.' Don't use billboards as signposts. Don't tie access to your writing skills to your favourite brand of pencil or a madeleine. Treat the outside world as but an extension of your interior monologue. See where that gets you.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

15.08.16 Front Page

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