Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Keep Some of Your Process Analog

I recently read a widely cited study about how our brains engage in learning differently when we work by hand. According to their research, manually manipulating and drawing things out has a significant impact on our creative process:

“When it comes to learning and remembering material, the pen is mightier than the keyboard. Writing entails using the hand and fingers to form letters. It requires more mental energy and engages more areas of the brain than pressing keys on a computer keyboard. The sequential finger movements activate multiple regions of the brain associated with processing and remembering information. And learning is enhanced when we attempt to retrieve and recreate using multiple modalities, including kinesthetic, tactile, visual, olfactory, and auditory.”

And so, the question becomes, do we abandon our computers completely?

Not necessarily.

On my seventeenth birthday, my high school sweetheart bought me a custom embossed leather book cover. She was, after all, my official muse, so it was only fitting that I had a special book to hold all the love songs I wrote for her.

Now, although she and I eventually drifted apart, as many first time lovers do, I never stopped using that songbook. Almost twenty years later, even amidst the adoption of computer technology, writing software and other digital applications; even alongside my professional career as an author, publisher, consultant and laptop monkey, I’ve always insisted on keeping some of my creative process as a analog experience.

First, for philosophical reasons:

I use the songbook for nostalgia’s sake. It feels organic and romantic. It makes for a more intimate, interesting artifact. It allows me to think in ways hammering at a computer never could. It helps me escapes the speed and sanitized perfection of contemporary culture. It symbolizes a creative process that involves slowness, attentiveness and contemplation. And it reminds me that the more technology we have, the more people will be interested in what the human mind can create without it.

It just makes sense intellectually.

Second, I use the songbook for practical reasons:

Frankly, I just love the sound of a pen scratching paper. The gentle noises of the pages turning. The experience of stumbling into verbal accidents. The excitement of seeing my words stringing together on a page. The frustration of crossing out lyrics that don’t make the final cut. The varying shades of ink as I apply more pen pressure because of the uncontrollable passion and excitement for certain words and phrases. And of course, the satisfaction of circling the title of a newly finished tune.

It just makes sense physically.

Plus, you never know. One man’s scribble can become another man’s heirloom.

Detour is a traveling art exhibit that featured notebook creations by internationally recognized artists, architects, film directors, graphic designers, illustrators, and writers. Some works contained extensive stories, while others were converted into pieces of contemporary art and design. But once the exhibit was finished touring, all of the notebooks were published in a beautiful coffee table book.

I own a copy, and as a physical archive, I must say, having that whole collection of three hundred handwritten notebooks makes the me feel like I’m peeking into the brains of modern culture’s brightest creators. My favorite section is the essay is on the subject of notebooking, written by Lorin H. Stein, the editor of The Paris Review:

“The computer has given us permanent cold feet. No sooner do we try one thought, one rhythm or one piece on for size, we write by deletion and insertion and insertion and deletion, until at the end of a long day, we end up facing an empty screen. The notebook, by contrast, demands commitment. You write and there’s no turning back. You may immediately scratch it out, but the page has been breached. There are footprints in the snow.”

It’s a powerful case for the analog world.

And yet, it’s not a panacea.

The goal isn’t to compartmentalize our creative process into equal parts analog and digital. Life isn’t always that cut and dry. Not everyone has the square footage to maintain two different workstations. And trying to enforce a perfect balance of the two might do more harm than good.

Instead, we ought to take a closer look at our creative workflow and ask ourselves, are there any activities that might be better served without the aid of a digital hand? Is there anything work would benefit from a more human, organic approach? Because along the way, we may discover some corner of how we express ourselves, small as it may be, that’s begging to unplug and help us get back in touch with our bodies.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite reads on this topic, Shop Class As Soulcraft. This book legitimately changed the way I work. It renewed my cultivation for manual competence. According to the author, we experience a greater sense of agency, competence and cognitive richness when we do manual work. That we must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where our failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. That creating in a more physical way helps us tolerate the layers of electronic bullshit that get piled on top of machines.

The point is, we owe it to ourselves and work to keep some of our workflow free from the constraints of digital. To stay current with our technological reality, but also to stay true to our analog humanity. And ultimately, this key decision will help tighten up our creative systems and release new levels of output and expression.