On writing the self

Posted on May 19, 2012 in Everyday Life

A year ago, Microsoft Research Cambridge and Microsoft Office commissioned the RCA to look at how authorship may change in the future and to help design the Future of Writing, and you can read about all the interesting projects in depth (pdf).

But it’s Koby (Yaacov) Barhad‘s Thoughts You May Have that stuck with me the most because it made me think about writing (and) the self. Barhad’s project began with his “desire…to reintroduce writing as a form of thinking” and explore writing as the “externalisation of thought.” Psychologist Lev Vygotsky claimed that “words die as they bring forth thoughts” and Barhad developed a word processor that immediately deleted each word as it appeared on screen — try it out! — thereby forcing the writer to constantly stay in the “now” and type whatever comes to mind. Meanwhile, “all the data that is being typed is constantly saved and processed so that users can read it as soon as they close the application.” Barhad’s exploration of how these “private” conversations can be made “public” — in a shared Cogitos space — is also interesting in terms of how the tool can be used to promote reflexivity and perhaps even reciprocity, and the project raises questions about access to, and control over, one’s stream of thought.

Unfortunately, I read the project documentation several times and couldn’t clearly identify the research questions or methods of analysis, and I think the final result actually suffers from trying to be too many things at once. While not precisely answering the brief, to focus just on writing in the “now” would have made a valuable contribution to understanding how writing works, especially as a form of self-inquiry and self-construction — and I would have liked to know more about that.

Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, suggests an activity or tool she calls Morning Pages, which involves starting each day by writing three pages on anything and everything that crosses your mind. This kind of stream-of-consciousness writing has been suggested by many practitioners as a great way to empty out the mind, get unstuck, and otherwise understand things better so that we can get on with other stuff. In fact, Buster Benson created 750 Words as a place online where you can “write 3-pages privately every day, and learn about yourself in the process.”

What makes Barhad’s word processor so interesting, I think, is that it goes beyond writing for ourselves to actually write the self. This difference seems to arise because his tool doesn’t allow the writer to reflect on what is written until after the fact. In other words, the writer is always already in the process of becoming.

It seems like I should have more to say about this but I don’t. All I can say is that this makes me think about writing as a form of inquiry, and about the rise of auto- or self-ethnography in qualitative research. It makes me wonder how different stories — my stories — would be if they were written first on Barhad’s word processor. And I wonder how editing stories would work.

What does it make you think about?