My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 1, #22, January, 1996


I've been interested for a long time in the odd workings of the mind, like for instance, how do we know what we know? How and where are memories stored? How do we originate ideas? And why do no two people seem to think the same way or see the same world anyone else is seeing?

It seems to me that we all have crazy catalogers inside our heads, who take our experiences and the bits and pieces of information we pick up, and file them away under various subject headings--without bothering to tell us what those subject headings are. Those memories will then return to us when triggered by the appropriate subject heading.

Some of us just have more thorough catalogers than others, who file things away under lots more subject headings. Some people may see an elephant and store it away under a very small number of headings--say, basic physical appearance: large floppy ears, tusks, trunk, four legs. Others may have a much larger complex of information attached to it. For instance, elephant, to me, includes the following associations:

And those are just the ones I can think of; like I said, the crazy cataloger doesn't really tell you where he stored the memories.

This means that the word "elephant" is as likely to steer me off into thoughts of Dr. Seuss or opera as it is to steer me to thoughts of politics . (It also means that people don't always follow my train of thought. I do find people saying "Huh?" kind of a lot when my mind does this sort of thing.)

One of my favorite heroes in mystery fiction is Matt Cobb in William DeAndrea's series, Killed in the Ratings, Killed on the Ice, Killed on the Rocks, etc. In one of them, he talks about how memories drift down into the tar pit of the mind, then bubble up unexpectedly to the surface, but with very strange things attached to them.

That, I think, is probably the essence of creativity: unlike ideas getting mushed together in your mind and coming out as an entirely new idea. It is this kind of connection-making that allows a man to look at a Jacquard loom and see in it the idea for a punch card that sorts data and changes the entire world.

I seem to have an unusally tarry memory. This almost certainly explains my deplorable predilection for puns. It's probably also the reason I could not write without the parenthesis. This is an indicator that I have arrived at a switching point in my brain, from which I can veer off in several different directions. But, since I do in fact have a point, I reluctantly abandon all the other possible paths. I just want you to know the directions I could have gone, and how really sad it makes me to have to leave them abandoned in the railroad yard.

But if your brain switches you in an unexpected direction, you might want to pay attention to it; sometimes the brain's instincts are excellent. Orson Scott Card, the science fiction/fantasy writer who wrote the classic Ender's Game, says that when he makes a mistake in writing, instead of correcting it, he tries to figure out why he made the error; he usually finds that if he stays with the mistake, he ends up with a better novel.

So, how do we figure out where our crazy cataloger put our memories? For one thing, pay attention to your mind when it wanders. When I notice that my mind has drifted, in 30 seconds, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Saran Wrap, I retrace my steps to figure out how in God's name it did that. (It was absolutely logical. Mostly.) Free association is also a wonderful guide to where the bodies are buried.

This doesn't mean you should actually trust your cataloger. I don't. If I want to make sure I get to the right place at the right time, I use alarm clocks and calendars and notes on refrigerators and e-mail to myself. Otherwise my cataloger might just send me to the circus instead of to a public meeting with my Republican congressman. You never know.

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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.

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