Friday, August 5, 2016

On Writing

I overheard this quote from E. L. Doctorow on my favorite language podcast "A Way with Words"
[The act of writing is] “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
This beautifully-expressed thought touched a chord.

Usually when I begin writing, I have a rough notion of the ideas I want to communicate, but they are all tangled up like a ball of wool. The hope is to untangle the mess (think), cut redundant strands ("there is no writing, only rewriting"), and weave a sweater (a narrative) - to push the wool metaphor a bit.

Writing helps me think. It helps me learn. It helps me see new patterns in things I already know.

I have a simplistic theory on why writing works as a thinking and learning tool.

Our mind stores thoughts and ideas like my kids store their toys. They are all over the place.

A sentence or paragraph or story has a linear structure. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

In computer science terms, ideas in our mind are like graphs, ideas on paper are like queues.

The act of writing makes us examine the graph carefully, figure out the relevant or important links, and to project them into a one-dimensional (or quasi 1D) narrative.

Here's a game you can play with a kid that captures some of these thoughts.

Look at a map of the world showing different countries. These are like the ideas in your head. Each country borders other countries or water bodies (a graph).

Now pick any two countries, say US and Romania. Suppose the goal is find a path from the US to Romania, keeping track of the boundaries you cross. Perhaps, you want to minimize these crossings (or perhaps, you want to take the scenic route).

The act of figuring out an "optimal" path forces us to project the map of the world onto a queue. If we are attentive and lucky, we might learn new things.

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