[This post is an extended revision of something I wrote a while back called “Organizing a Basketball.” It was about how hard it is for me to turn my knowledge/ideas into linear, sequential things. I likened people telling me to just “organize my ideas in order” in linear text to having your teacher come up to you at recess and telling you that in order to prove that you understood the basketball you were holding, you needed to organize an actual basketball for a presentation. But like. A basketball is a single object. How do you organize a single object? I wanted to go into more detail about what does and doesn’t happen/work in my brain, so I wrote this a few months later.]
why “just make an outline?…or freewrite!” = unhelpful
I’m going to try to explain my “process” of thinking about and writing a paper. To me, most of this is not a “process,” because it’s just thinking, and there are no steps or instructions, and it’s different every time. But some things are the same always, and so that is what I’ll try to explain.
In the beginning, there is always my brain. My brain has lots of things in it, according to other people. This is weird, because to me there is only one thing in my brain: the world. It’s kind of like a giant Rube-Goldberg machine, and also kind of like a big atlas, and also kind of like an old, old memory of a place, and also kind of like a body. If it helps, think of it this way: If other people “know” rules and formulas and principles about the world by having a copy of them stored in their heads, I “know” those same formulas and principles by building worlds out of them.
I know some stuff about quantum mechanics because when I think about quantum mechanics, I sense and imagine bits of matter in five dimensions, where each bit at each moment is actually just a probabilistic cloud of bit-ness that condenses and disperses at specific points. None of this information is verbal. All of it is spatial-kinesthetic. When I say it’s a model of “quantum mechanics” in my head, I mean literally there is a model of all I understand about “quantum mechanics” and it’s all in my head. It is not necessarily a correct model, and I have to reframe it to integrate new, relevant information. But it is everything I know, basically.
I have these models for everything. And they are really, concretely, synaesthetically whole—At any moment (with a few exceptions) they exist as wholes, and are made up of all the things that I know. It is impossible for me to not include previous things learned in my understanding of something new. Cognitively impossible. Telling me to explain myself and then interrupting me to ask that I limit my scope or not be tangential or not to give too much background is devastatingly unhelpful. It’s like saying, “Could you please build me this bridge, but not use any wood or concrete or, really, anything besides live small cats.” Like, no, I can’t build you a bridge out of live small cats. Sorry. If you want me to build using small cats, why don’t you ask me to make a zoo for small cats? Or a circus? Or an Animal Planet show (It exists. It is great)?
When I do decide to try and translate my understanding into a coherently linear argument for the benefit of others, my life becomes really fucking ridiculous. Like with a statue, or a machine, or a person, there are an almost infinite number of different ways I could describe any given idea or theory that is perfectly built in my head. If someone is asked to describe an object in real life, it’s understood that a normal person will probably start with like “Well, this is a basketball…it’s brown…” But people are generally less understanding when they ask you to explain your esoteric cultural theory and you’re like “Well, it’s complicated, it’s turquoise…and it’s awesome…” I can’t get away with directly describing my ideas and insights to other people with words; when I try to do this, I am told that my ideas are not real, that they aren’t actual thoughts unless I can express them in abstract terms, and that nothing I say is comprehensible. For me, the sensory qualities that normal people consider “concrete” “facts” have real, nuanced, context-dependent, shifting and specific meanings, just as—if not more—complex as supposedly “abstract” language. My ideas are sensory, they are concrete, and they are real. But in order for people to understand that, I need to engage in multiple consecutive translation processes.
First, I have to translate into poetry and diagrams and pictures and maps, mostly. This is kind of like my own brain language, and allows me to simultaneously outline and explore my own ideas. In the process of trying to translate what’s in my head into these languages, I will usually come up with a large number of descriptions and images, all of which are to some extent correct. Noticing which descriptions and images seem “off,” or imprecise, and which seem to fit very nicely, is a great way to further explore my thoughts and pay attention to their details.
Next, I have to translate the poetry and the drawings into “intellectual-speak” (or my version of it) so that I can develop my ideas’ more abstract connotations and qualities. This would be like, the kind of thinking that goes into abstracts, introductions and conclusions of articles: critical commentaries, contexts, historical data, theoretical frameworks, and so forth. This is usually written out shorthand and messy, in my own special blend of buzzwords, theoretical jargon, favorite terms, poetry, dorky adolescent slang from middle school, tumblr-speak and cat jokes. It makes sense to very few people, but those who do understand it have told me that it can be quite funny. I tend to be sassy at this point.
Next, this has to be translated into a kind argumentative, sequential box-and-arrow diagram…in a long and arduous process that generally makes me seem like a hot mess. Let’s just say that the way I have to construct arguments and the way other people make arguments are two completely different things…My way is both incredibly rigorous and tedious as fuck. It’s like building a house of cards…but like…on your body, instead of a flat surface. So like, you have to move to put another card on, but if you move too much, everything crumbles and you have to start over. No, there is no way around this. No, your advice is not helpful. No, you don’t understand what’s going on in my head. No, I don’t know how long it will take. No, I don’t know when I’ll be able to start writing the “actual paper,” but if you use the phrase “actual paper” with me again I will actually kill you.
Now, the sequential box-and-arrow diagram thing may or may not involve actual semantic argumentation/structure…sometimes it’s like “WORD IN BOX→ TWO WORDS IN BOX→QUOTE IN BOX…” and so on, as opposed to “ASSUME X (IN BOX)…BUT THEN PROBLEMS (IN ANOTHER BOX)→ HOW SOLVE? → OPTIONS?→ OPTION A. DITCH STUPID IDEA #1…” and so on. If my box-outline is more like the former rather than the latter example, I will have to then translate those boxes into a coherent argument…which can be either very difficult, or very easy (never in between) depending on the topic. The process of turning arranged bits of things into arguments is like…a process that deserves it’s own damn post, because it’s difficult to explain. So I will leave it at that for now.
OK. Assuming that, at this point, I’ve been able to put together a coherent argument box-outline-plot-thing-shit, which would include the relevant pieces of evidence I want to use, and so forth, I might start to write. Hopefully. If I reach this point, and am not a giant traumatized cloud of anxiety, I might be able to write. And if I can write, I write like nobody’s fucking business.
The moral of this story, for those of you who read this: Being like “Dude, you should just freewrite…” is fucking obnoxious. And unhelpful. Another thing that’s unhelpful to people who are having trouble structuring their ideas, or organizing things, is to be like “Hey, so just make an outline, and insert your pieces of evidence sequentially in each body paragraph/section.” Like, I get that the way you write an essay is to have evidence, sequentially, in paragraphs. My problem is HOW THE F**K DO YOU DECIDE WHICH EVIDENCE GOES IN WHICH PARAGRAPH AND ALSO WHICH EVIDENCE YOU SHOULD AND SHOULD NOT USE AND WHICH GOES FIRST AND WHICH GOES SECOND AND YEAH.
Not everybody’s brain comes with tidy little reductive boxes that you can just toss information into and then scooch around until it suits your linear, sequential fancy. So stop assuming that if we struggle, it’s because we’re doing the same process you do, but shittier. There’s a really good chance that the reason a person is struggling with writing/organizing their thoughts is because their thoughts are qualitatively incompatible with sequences, words, lines, or any number of other things.