Friday, October 4, 2013

What We Think We Know

by Sheila Connolly

Once upon a time, we went to school to learn things.  We learned facts, we took tests about them, we filed them in whatever part of our brain keeps facts, and then we went on about our business.  We figured that once we’d learned something, that was that.
Somebody keeps changing the rules.
Once in another lifetime I was a biology major, so I knew something about science, or so I thought.  But there are a whole lot of things that nobody mentioned, like quarks.  According to Wikipedia (which also did not exist—I grew up with multiple volumes of The Encyclopedia Britannica), “There are six types of quarks, known as flavors: up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top.” I’m pretty sure I would have remembered those, had I ever learned about them, because the names are so funny.  But of course I didn’t, because no one discovered them until after I left high school. Oops.  I guess I haven’t needed them, unless I ever get to appear on Jeopardy.
Which I almost did once, but that’s a different story.  But almost every time I watch that show, I am reminded that whatever geography I once knew is now mostly incorrect.  Somebody keeps renaming countries, sometimes more than once.  And they keep moving the boundaries. (Oh, all right, the U.S. details haven’t changed a lot—I think I’m just geographically challenged.)
I was struck once again by the shifting (or do I mean shifty?) nature of facts while reading a recent publication about Stonehenge: Stonehenge: A New Understanding, by Mike Parker Pearson.  It’s a delightful scholarly book by someone who is intimately familiar with the archeology and really excited about his subject, and who writes well (these don’t always go together).
We’ve all heard of Stonehenge, right?  I’ve been there:  once back in the Dark Ages when one was permitted to wander freely amongst the stones and pat them affectionately (I’ve also visited the larger stone circle at nearby Avebury, close in time to the summer solstice, when people actually hug the stones); and once after all the regulations went into effect and now you can only walk along marked paths at a reverent distance.  This has something to do with preserving the past for the future, which I endorse, but it does change the experience.
We probably all think we know something about Stonehenge. Of course Stonehenge came up when I took Astronomy in college (all those alignments with sun or moon or various stars), and I’ve read a lot of books about the theories of who made Stonehenge and how and why.  The new book turns a whole lot of that on its ear.  While there have been many interesting, even convincing theories put forward, the author revises, redates, reinterprets and reassembles them, with the help of recent technologies.  Did I understand Stonehenge?  Only as well as past research allowed.  Now new research means I have to craft a new understanding.
It ain’t always easy.  It would be nice if there was a way to evaluate the data stored in our brain from time to time and say, “nope, never gonna need that file again” and toss it out so there’s room for something new, like social media vocabulary. But apparently I am unable to unlearn such useful things as song lyrics from the 1960s, for example, which are taking up a ridiculous amount of space in there—and I don’t even recall “learning” those lyrics, because as a serious, studious girl I rarely listened to popular music. 
Now I write books.  That means I’m supposed to remember a whole slew of characters that I’ve created—what they look like, how they think and speak, who they know.  I’m supposed to keep track of what their homes and their towns look like, and which way is north in these fictional places.  And now I have a lot of writer friends, and I’m supposed to remember who their characters are, and their book titles, and their agent’s name, and so on. Sometimes it feels like I’m squishing this into whatever empty corner of my brain that I can find—and sometimes I lose track of that information and can’t access those databases.  My apologies to any friends I have insulted recently by calling them by the wrong name or no name at all.
Is it even possible to “know” anything any more?




Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, much of what you describe is indeed changing and expanding information. But forgetting our friends' names now and then, alas, is aging. :(

Susan said...

I just saw Stonehenge recently, Sheila, so I understand your comments about the regulations on distance.

As for memory, the wonderful thing about writing is that we are creating new synapses and connections. Isn't it great that the brain can accommodate changes just like Wikipedia? You are keeping your brain young!

Sandra Parshall said...

We can create all the new synapses we like, but in the end it's best to keep a notebook with all the relevant information about our characters, major and minor. I remember when Margaret Maron appealed to Facebook friends to help her remember which of her books a particular character appeared in -- she didn't want to plow through all the Deborah Knott novels in an attempt to locate him. Fictional people are just like real ones: sometimes we forget where we know them from.

Steven M. Moore said...

Sandra's point is very important in even short series. When I refer to previously used characters, I often find myself needing some little detail that I didn't include in my notes about the character! It's hard to predict what "all the relevant information" might be even within the same book when your fingers are flying over the keyboard--stopping to record eye color, for example, interrupts the flow (but that's an easy one, thanks to colored contacts).
Sandra, your last line is key too. Sometimes I have a feeling of deja vu: is this really MY character or did I read about him thirty years ago? Finding original character names helps, but I've certainly done more reading than writing, when integrated over time, so I'm a bit paranoid about this.

Sandra Parshall said...

As long as we don't absentmindedly use somebody else's character, believing it's one of our own from a previous book, we might get away with minor errors. :-) The trouble is, we may have written a book years and years ago and moved on, but somewhere out there is a reader who is reading it for the first time right now. The characters will feel fresher to the reader than to the writer, but we can't let that show! (Hmm. Am I giving away authorial secrets?)