Writing, Fragments, and the Memex Method

This piece by Cory Doctorow about blogging, which I read a few days ago, is exceptional. Why?

I already knew that blogging – and having a personal website in general – is a superpower.

I had heard before of Vannevar Bush’s groundbreaking essay “As We May Think” that directly inspired the invention of hypertext by Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart, which, in turn, had a huge influence on the WorldWideWeb project.

I also knew that a blog lets you document your thoughts and impressions in what can become an archive for your notes and a record of your experiences over time.

I knew that by sitting down and writing, your writing will inevitably improve.

And, I knew that some people are bad at writing regularly and that others – and that’s why we like to call them “writers” – aren’t.

What Cory describes in his post, however, goes far beyond those individual ideas. He combines them into an approach to blogging that is maybe the most compelling and empowering reason to have a blog.

The Act of Publishing Keeps Us Honest

It all starts with the idea that a blog isn’t just a mere collection of notes in a Web-log. It is more than that because it involves one crucially important, magical act: publishing. Publishing our notes holds us as authors accountable, it forces us to shape our notes so that others will be able to make sense of them as well. Instead of quickly jotting down an incomplete fragment, we are forced to think about what it really is that makes the thought we are writing about so valuable. Why is it relevant? What is the essence of it? What is the best structure to convey that? What do we need to include to communicate it to someone reading our post? This, in turn, also makes it easier for ourselves to interpret our notes later. Instead of kidding ourselves into thinking that our future self will certainly be able to decode our dashed off notes, when we want to consult our record of collected memories, publishing our notes forces us to exercise care. As Cory writes: “Writing for an audience keeps me honest.”

The Source Material

The second important realization is that blogging allows you to collect a vast amount of disparate fragments of information. Any thought, any link, any idea that you come across and that seems to be significant can be documented – including the context and why it seems important – and collected into your own personal “Memex”. That’s the name Vannevar Bush picked in “As We May Think” for his vision of a future device “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

As a supplement to your memory, all those disparate notes sit there ready to suddenly merge into new ideas and turn into something bigger:

Every now and again, a few of these fragments will stick to each other and nucleate, crystallizing a substantial, synthetic analysis out of all of those bits and pieces I’ve salted into that solution of potential sources of inspiration.”

Rick Rubin describes a similar creative process in his book “The Creative Act”, which I recently listened to in the excellent audiobook version. His approach is to not limit his input at all, meaning that he curiously allows to enter his mind whatever draws his attention, regardless of whether it might seem relevant or “useless” in his current situation. There is no such thing as useless information, because you never know which new ideas will emerge as a synthesis of all the individual fragments of creative input you were exposed to in the past. Limiting your input will limit the potential for new combinations to arise. Everything we see, do, think, feel, imagine, and experience is the source material, and from it, we build each creative moment.

To the mind, this material appears to come from within. But that’s an illusion. There are tiny fragments of the vastness of Source stored within us. These precious wisps arise from the unconscious like vapor, and condense to form a thought. An idea.”

The thing is: This process isn’t a science. The only thing we can do is to be curious, keep a record of the things we deem to be significant, and constantly look for clues pointing to new ideas, for fragments of thought suddenly turning into something bigger.

What does Cory Doctorow do when one of those “nucleation events” occurs? He uses the search and the tag-based filters built into his blog(s) to surface everything he has ever written about that subject. For one, to aide his memory, but also as a starting point for further research.

The availability of a deep, digital, searchable, published and public archive of my thoughts turns habits that would otherwise be time-wasters — or even harmful — into something valuable.


That’s how blogging is complimentary to other forms of more serious work: when you’ve done enough of it, you can get entire essays, speeches, stories, novels, spontaneously appearing in a state of near-completeness, ready to be written.”

Cory Doctorow

A Habit – and a Decision

There is just one piece missing in the puzzle for this “Memex Method” to work. Writing regularly. Daily, even. I know that many of us – including myself – often don’t “find” enough time to write. But here’s the catch: writing every day isn’t just an aspirational goal, it’s a decision. You don’t wait until you find some time to write or only write when you’re kissed by the muse. No, you make the conscious decision to write every day, because that’s what a writer does. Over time, your writing will improve, but more importantly, writing and filling your archive will turn into a habit.

Wouldn’t it be great to feel invincible because you’re building an archive?


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@matthiasott, @pluralistic, it’s generally astonishing what a rewarding habit, no, what growth path blogging is
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