For owners of older Mac products

Apple’s criteria for upgrading to Mountain Lion is whether you own a mid-2007 or newer iMac or late 2008 aluminum MacBook and so on. I mean, what? I don’t see dates like that when I open my MacBook’s About This Mac info window. Newer MacBooks are showing this type of year-of-production info, but not the old models. Hence the value of this German web site dedicated to Apple tech support. Enter  your serial number for various Mac products (computers, laptops, printers, batteries, and monitors) and it will extrapolate various bits of basic information, such as the item’s manufacture date, model number, and so on.

This can be useful info for people like myself who want to know whether our products are eligible for the upgrade to Mountain Lion. Alas, my poor little plastic MacBook is mid-2007, so I’ll be staying with Snow Leopard for quite a while yet.

Remembering to remember (practice)

The previous post talked about prospective memory (PM) research. Today’s post is about learning to work with your prospective memory so you don’t forget to remember what you want to do. (God, do we writers love playing with phrases like “don’t forget to remember.” Annoying.) Post-It Note Art Collage (PINAP)

PM requires you to plan ahead so that the retrieval cue will be spontaneously triggered. If you don’t plan ahead, then your brain must spend precious cycles monitoring the environment for the retrieval cue. The human cognitive system can’t keep up a prolonged task like that, so you have to keep a few things in mind (heh – this stuff just writes itself) when establishing the PM task.

The following tips are explained in more detail below, but be prepared: you’re going to hear stuff you’ve heard a zillion times before. Also annoying, I’m sure. If there’s a theme tying these separate tips together, it’s also the oldest theme in the book: mindfulness.

  • Remove the delay in delayed intentions: do it or lose it
  • Use good external cues
  • Anticipate the triggering cues: use implementation intentions
  • Beware of busy and demanding conditions
  • Address the special problems of habitual PM tasks

Remove the delay in delayed intentions: do it or lose it

A PM task is a delayed intention; the longer the delay, the likelihood increases that you will forget the cue. The delay can be more hazardous if you successfully retrieve the cue yet cannot execute the task for some reason – just as you begin to do the PM task someone walks in and interrupts you, for example.

Thoughts fade from consciousness after only about 2 seconds without refreshment or rehearsal. If you’re in a hectic or pressured situation, then it’s even more likely you’re going to forget what you intended to do. Therefore, if you can do the task now, then do it now. Don’t delay.

But if you have to delay, then…

Use good external cues

The best way to ensure the PM cue will be triggered is to externalize your intention, put it in the environment where you’ll be sure to either literally or figuratively trip over it. Assume, in other words, that you will forget and plan how you will work around that forgetting.

Hence the age-old advice: if you need to take your moss-covered three-handled family gredunza to work the next day, then put it by the front door where you’ll see it before you leave.

You can extend that advice by associating a task or intention with any convenient object. If I wake up in the night and think of a task I want to do in the morning, then I’ll take the box of tissues by my bed and stand it upright on the floor. If I’m working in my office and want to remember to check that the back door is locked before I go to bed, then I’ll pull the trashcan out from under the desk and put it in front of the door. Once I’ve set the object in place, I can safely send the PM task to the background and continue with my foreground task. When I see the tissue box or trashcan, my first thought is usually, “What’s that doing there?” quickly followed by, “Oh yeah! I wanted to …” and the miracle of life goes on.

Other advice along these lines is to use a tickler file or leave yourself a voicemail or a Post-It note on the bathroom mirror. The goal is to get your attention by having the cue stand out from the quotidian.

Anticipate the triggering cues: use implementation intentions

I wrote a bit about implementation intentions here:

An implementation intention basically says. “I will do behavior x when y happens so that I can achieve z.” The objective is to have your environment deliver the cue for the behavior you want to encourage.

So avoid saying, “I need to remember to send Scott that email.” Instead, say “I will send Scott an email immediately after I sit down at my desk so that he can order the tickets.” These simple when-then directives can also support goals and encourage better habits. This method has proven effective across numerous populations: drug addicts going through withdrawal, schizophrenics, frontal lobe patients, and older adults.

To make the intention even more memorable, say it out loud and pat yourself on the head (laugh, but the subjects had to do that in a study where there were no other retrieval cues available).

A disadvantage of this method is that it requires time and mental energy to think of and then phrase an appropriate intention. If you are in a demanding environment, this may not be useful. So, if at all possible …

Beware of busy and demanding conditions

We are poor multitaskers and in the middle of a swirling, hectic day you are not likely to remember any promises quickly made as you’re walking to the printer or just before the phone rings. Even if you try setting implementation intentions, you need to clear some mental space by shutting out the noise and distraction surrounding you; that effort can simply overtax your cognitive processes too much.

Interruptions also take their toll; if you’re interrupted just as you’re about to execute a PM task, then it’s important for you to set a new, strong cue as quickly as possible. Writing things down or setting reliable external cues, like alarms or reminders built into your email or calendar systems, can help you to remember to execute future tasks.

One of my practices, if someone asks me to do something while I’m in transit or can’t write anything down, is to ask the person to send me an email. I am good about turning email into tasks, and that way I can simply track that task in my productivity systems. And if the other person forgets to send the email? Not my problem! I win!

Another underrated tool: the humble checklist, a standby of airline crews and, if they listen to Atul Gawande, medical teams and physicians. You can’t think and do at the same time; you can do one or the other, but not both. In a stressed environment – even life or death environments – doing is easier if the steps are already laid out for you.

Side note: I have found that creating a checklist for certain procedures or workflows is a great way to capture long-term knowledge or experience, either my own or someone else’s.

Address the special problems of habitual PM tasks

Habitual PM tasks are things like taking medication, closing the chimney flue, turning off the oven, making sure the door is locked. With such actions, you may repeat the task because you can’t remember you performed it or you may think you performed it when you actually didn’t. Again, using external aids – like pill organizers or alarms or homemade checklists – can help keep you on track.

Again, the challenge is to make yourself pay attention to what you’re doing. You can manipulate some part of the environment to flag that you have or have not done the task. For example, I have sets of exercises to do when I practice my banjo. I use a sticky note to flag the set of exercises I do in the current practice session. The next time I sit down to practice, I can quickly see the exercises I practiced last time and the set I need to practice this time. Again, it’s so simple as to sound almost trivial, yet it’s those little tricks that often enable older adults to perform better in some prospective memory studies than young college students.

Other things you can try:

  • If possible, block out all other distractions and focus exclusively on the task. Don’t think about anything else. In fact, describe aloud what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Engaging the vocal and aural areas of the brain will make the task more lively and memorable.
  • Try to increase the complexity of the task or execute it in an unusual or different way. Cross your arms as you take your pill, turn around three times and say “three-handled moss-covered family gredunza” as you close the flue – anything you can do to make the task more memorable.
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Remembering to remember (theory)

One of the sweet ironies of my time at SILS was that I entered with a long-term interest in personal information management, yet I never took a single PIM class nor did any research on it. Remember Last Night?

Another of my long-term interests is human memory and my personal library has always had lots of memory books, starting with The Memory Book on up to Moonwalking with Einstein, with a diversion through Francis Yates’ magisterial The Art of Memory.

My last literature review project as a PhD student combined these two interests. It was on the topic of prospective memory, a charmingly oxymoronic term that has been described as “remembering to remember.” Herewith, a post that compresses some of that research because I thought it was too interesting not to share.

Prospective vs. Retrospective

Its opposite, retrospective memory, is what most of us are familiar with: a memory of an event that occurred in the past. This type of memory has been thoroughly researched for decades and has spawned a bewildering number of models: visual memory, semantic memory, autobiographical memory, sense memory, location memory, working memory, etc. We use retrospective memory to remember a small detail from a single day in our childhood or information we crammed the night before the test or hours of  Monty Python sketches. (I am surprised that there are so many different conceptual models attempting to describe only certain aspects of memory and that there is still no one model that encompasses all of them.)

By contrast, prospective memory (PM) research has only been actively studied over the last 20 years and the research protocols are still being worked out. Also, prospective memory is about remembering a specific piece of information that must be recalled at a specific time in the near future. Prospective memory’s two key components are 1) remembering to do a task and 2) executing the task at the opportune moment. If I forget to do the task at the time it should be done, the task is said to have failed. If I remember to do the task, but after the opportune moment has passed, then the task is considered failed.

For example, I need to buy pasta for dinner. The prospective component of that task is remembering that I need to buy the pasta on the way home from work. If I remember to do so as I drive past the grocery store, then I have a chance of successfully completing the task. I may not have thought of the task all day, yet I may spontaneously recall it when I see the Harris Teeter sign from the road. This means I have to interrupt my foreground task (driving home) to execute the PM task and then resume the foreground task. However, if I remember to buy the pasta only after I pull into my driveway at home, then I have failed the prospective memory task because the optimal time for its completion has passed. Prospective memory includes not just remembering the task to be completed, but also successfully carrying out the intended action. And after I’ve completed the task, I can safely forget all about it.

(Retrospective memory plays a role in any PM task. After all, I have to remember how to drive a car, the directions to the store, the brand of pasta to buy, and so on.)

PM Failure

An interesting note that is struck by some of the literature is the social/moral aspect of prospective memory failure. If one forgets an address or a phone number, it is simply chalked up to a failure in retrospective memory (“I’ve always had a bad memory for names”); it is seen as a property dissociated from the person. Yet, a failure of prospective memory may call my reliability into question; my wife may label me as “careless” or “complacent” (among other things) (Winograd, 1988; McDaniel and Einstein, 2007). I can handle breaking a promise to myself, but if you were depending on me to execute the task, then social pressure may affect how I choose to remember the intention (Meacham, 1988).

PM is also critical in medication adherence, which is a tremendously active and rich research domain in its own right. I could forget to take my medicine at the right time(s) or take it too often. Also, most memory errors made by airline pilots tend to be prospective in nature.

A PM task can fail for multiple reasons: I didn’t encode the task properly, I was distracted when I attempted to encode the task or missed the retrieval cue, or I was doing some habitual action – like commuting or getting dressed – that interfered with the cue, etc. If I am on auto-pilot when driving home from work, then I may not remember to turn right instead of left and so we have no pasta for supper.

McDaniel and Einstein (2007) recount a heartbreaking anecdote of a new father whose failures of prospective memory—which included not ensuring a potent enough reminder cue and performing actions outside of his daily routine—led to the suffocation of his infant son in the back of his locked car. In this case, the father put his infant son’s car seat in the back and the child fell asleep. As the man drove to work he fell into the daily rhythm of his commuting habit, thought about his workday, turned to go to work instead of turning the other way to go to the daycare center, parked, and exited the car having totally forgotten about his son. The authors emphasize that failures of prospective memory are not moral failings, but instances where the human cognitive processes are under such stress—interruptions, lack of sleep, too much sensory input—that the task cannot be recalled.

PM Skeptics

There are PM skeptics to be sure, and they make damnably good points.

For one thing, you can almost effortlessly recall lots of details about what you did and where you went today, even though you may not have paid much attention to events at the time. Retrospective memory happens without our even trying.

Prospective memory, on the other hand, requires that you be mindful, pay attention, and burn some cognitive energy considering where and what you’ll be doing so you can encode a persistent cue in your environment to trigger the PM task. That could mean setting an alarm on your cell phone (time-based cue) or knowing that you’ll see the Harris Teeter sign on the way home (event-based cue). But is the PM task really a memory task in this case or just good planning? PM may only be a convenient – and confusingly named – blanket term encompassing diverse processes: behavior, attention, awareness, planning, monitoring, and so on.

Crowder (1996) employed a devastatingly simple rejoinder to the use of the term “prospective memory,” a term that he believed distracted researchers from the real problem under study. If one took the phrase “I must remember to do that task” and removed the words “remember to,” then the problem simplified from one of memory to one of planning and intention – “I must do that task.” Revising “forget to perform” to “fail to perform” yields the same result (Crowder, 1996).

There is also the suspicion that, because prospective memory is explicitly defined as “successfully carrying out the intention,” what should really be studied are how people set intentions, what are the cognitive processes backing them, and so on. Memory is about forgetting or remembering; successfully carrying out a remembered promise is about something other than memory (social rewards or self-image, for example) (Crowder, 1996). Intention as a concept could be subdivided into the memory for the intention, remembering the intention, and then executing the intention (Smith, 2008).

***

If you want more (more! MORE!) then hie thee to the Wikipedia entries linked above. Suffice to say, it’s a fascinating topic.

The next post will be about strategies to increase the chances of successfully completing a PM task. My references and other articles of interest follow below.

References

Bower, G. H. (2000). A brief history of memory research. In E. Tulving & F. I. Craik (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Memory (pp. 3-32). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Craik, F. I. M., & Kerr, S. A. (1996). Prospective Memory, Aging, and Lapses of Intention. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 227-237). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Crowder, R. G. (1996). Commentary: The Trouble with Prospective Memory: A Provocation. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 143-147). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Dobbs, A. R., & Reeves, M. B. (1996). Prospective Memory: More Than memory. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 199-225). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Dodhia, R. M., & Dismukes, R. K. (2009). Interruptions create prospective memory tasks. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(1), 73-89.

Einstein, G. O., McDaniel, M. A., Marsh, R. L., & West, R. (2008). Prospective memory: Processes, Lifespan Changes, and Neuroscience. In H. L. Rodiger III & J. H. Byrne (Eds.), Cognitive Psychology of Memory (Vol. 2, pp. 867-892). Oxford: Elsevier.

Ellis, J. A. (1988). Memory for Future Intentions: Investigating Pulses and Steps. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Interpersonal Relations and Prospective Remembering (Vol. Some Observations on Prospective Remembering, pp. 371-376). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Ellis, J. A. (1996). Prospective Memory of the Realization of Delayed Intentions: A Conceptual Framework for Research. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 1-22). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Ellis, J. A., & Cohen, G. (2008). Memory for intentions, actions, and plans. In G. Cohen & M. A. Conway (Eds.), Memory in the Real World (pp. 141-172). New York: Psychology Press.

Elsweiler, D., Ruthven, I., & Jones, C. (2007). Towards memory supporting personal information management tools. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(7), 924-946.

Elsweiler, D., Baillie, M., & Ruthven, I. (2008). Exploring memory in email refinding. ACM Trans. Inf. Syst, 26(4), 1–36.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions. Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

Graf, P., & Uttl, B. (2001). Prospective memory: a new focus for research. Conscious Cogn, 10(4), 437-450.

Guimond, A., Braun, C. M. J., Rouleau, I., & Godbout, L. (2008). The relative importance of suboperations of prospective memory. Applied Neuropsychology, 15(3), 184 - 193.

Harris, J. E. (1984). Remembering to do things: A forgotten topic. In J. E. Harris & P. E. Morris (Eds.), Everyday Memory, Actions, and Absent-Mindedness (pp. 71-92). London: Academic Press.

Hicks, J. L., Marsh, R. L., & Russell, E. J. (2000). The properties of retention intervals and their affect on retaining prospective memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26(5), 1160 - 1169.

Kliegel, M., McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2008). Preface. In M. Kliegel, M. A. McDaniel, & G. O. Einstein (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Cognitive, Neuroscience, Developmental, and Applied Perspectives (p. xiii). New York: Lawrence Elbaum Associates.

Koriat, A., & Ben-Zur, H. (1988). Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues (pp. 203-208). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Kvavilashvili, L., & Ellis, J. A. (1996). Varieties of Intention: Some Distinctions and Classifications. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 23-51). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Marsh, R. L., Hicks, J. L., & Landau, J. D. (1998). An investigation of everyday prospective memory. Memory and Cognition, 26, 633–643.

Marsh, R. L., Hicks, J. L., & Cook, G. I. (2005). On the Relationship Between Effort Toward an Ongoing Task and Cue Detection in Event-Based Prospective Memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(1), 68 - 75.

McDaniel, M. A., & Einstein, G. O. (2007). Prospective Memory: An Overview and Synthesis of an Emerging Field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Meacham, J. A. (1988). Interpersonal Relations and Prospective Remembering. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Some Observations on Prospective Remembering (Vol. Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring, pp. 354-359). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Park, D. C., & Kidder, D. P. (1996). Prospective Memory and Medication Adherence. In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 369-390). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Rabbitt, P. (1996). Why Are Studies of “Prospective Memory” Planless? In M. Brandimonte, G. O. Einstein, & M. A. McDaniel (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Theory and Applications (pp. 239-248). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Sellen, A. J., Louie, G., Harris, J. E., & Wilkins, A. J. (1997). What brings intentions to mind? An in situ study of prospective memory. Memory, 5(4), 483–507.

Smith, R. E. (2003). The cost of remembering to remember in event-based prospective memory: Investigating the capacity demands of delayed intention performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology-Learning Memory and Cognition, 29(3), 347–360.

Smith, R. E. (2008). Connecting the Past and the Future: Attention, Memory, and Delayed Intentions. In M. Kliegel, M. A. McDaniel, & G. O. Einstein (Eds.), Prospective Memory: Cognitive, Neuroscience, Developmental, and Applied Perspectives (pp. 29-52). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Thöne-Otto, A. I. T., & Walther, K. (2003). How to design an electronic memory aid for brain-injured patients: Considerations on the basis of a model of prospective memory. International Journal of Psychology, 38(4), 236–244.

Winograd, E. (1988). Some Observations on Prospective Remembering. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Remembering That I Did It: Processes and Deficits in Output Monitoring (Vol. Practical Aspects of Memory: Current Research and Issues, pp. 348-353). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

 

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Science must leave beauty at the margins of experience as it pursues truth. Art must leave truth at the margins as it pursues beauty.

In the end, science will hopefully produce knowledge that helps us to live more intelligently. Art will produce works that help us experience life more fully. But neither the art nor the science is, in itself, life. That is why we don’t want a society run by either scientists or artists alone. We want a society that has a place for both.

Review: "The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter"

Over the 2010 Christmas vac, I took six books with me but read only one: the 700-page The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter. The book is a compilation of emails exchanged between Doctor Who producer/head-writer/show-runner Russell T. Davies – the man we have to thank for the series’ 2005 reboot and reimagining – and Benjamin Cook, a young reporter for the Radio Times magazine and the monthly “Doctor Who Magazine.” Cook initiated the exchange just before David Tennant’s final season as the Doctor. The first email in the book, in fact, is Cook asking to do an article on the nuts and bolts of how a script is written, from inception to filming. Fortunately for us, Davies rather cheerfully and enthusiastically took the risk of exposing his process to Cook. That’s an element of Davies’ psychology that emerges throughout the book: he puts himself into uncomfortable places where he feels particularly vulnerable, though it scares him to death. I admire that a lot. But another less attractive aspect of his personality is that, once in those spaces, he squirms and fidgets and complains until he tires himself out and realizes that, well, this is where he chose to be.

As Davies says elsewhere in the book, he’d never be able to write a proper, straightforward “here’s how to write a script” manual. His process is too personal, interior, and – to an uncomfortable, disquieting degree – emotionally shredding. His emails are chatty, breezy, and one could have probably squeezed all the air out of those emails (especially the one-line bantering and texts between he and Cook) and shortened the book by a good 300 pages.

But I cared not! And I wanted more! I loved every page and lugged the book everywhere we went in Florida (despite its murderously block-like shape, the book is surprisingly lightweight). I loved the light and easygoing conversation between Cook and Davies that made me feel I’d stumbled on one of the great casual correspondences of all time. I read it before going to bed, on awakening, while everyone else napped, after everyone else went to bed. I had been steeping myself at the time in Tennant’s run on the series via Netflix and various Doctor Who review sites and that was good prep for reading the book. My familiarity with the episodes made the behind-the-scenes, chaotic, mad energy of their creation – how the scripts started out in a different place from where they finally ended, fixed in form forever – all the more fascinating to me.

One of the book’s threads is the progression of Cook and Davies’ email relationship from that of observer and subject to confidantes and even collaborators. As the book progresses, Cook the observer texts Davies from the set or at some public event and lobs one or two questions without comment. As an observer, he explicitly starts out by not commenting on bits of script that Davies sends him, does not react as a fan, and does a good job of staying detached. But there are a few crucial points during specific episodes where Cook proffers advice and Davies actually listens.

One I remember is Cook urging Davies to not insert a cliffhanger in the final moments of “Journey’s End” and instead to let Donna’s absence have its time and weight with both the Doctor and the audience. I still can’t quite believe Davies at first wanted to pull the emotional rug out from under the viewers by sticking to his adventure-serial template. But it’s an indication of Davies’ lack of ego when it comes to his writing that he considers the advice and realizes that the quieter moment would make a better story in the end.

And as their conversation progresses, we see Davies trusting Cook, asking him questions, getting his advice. Along the way, Davies doesn’t shy away from the personal questions about his family, his relationships, the crushing demands of his job, and the fears and anxieties that knot his guts at 3 in the morning.

I found myself worrying about the poor man’s health. The pressures and the pace of his business and public life, and the anxieties that hover over him every minute, mean that he gets hardly any rest, no vacations, and I’m sure he subsists on fast food and coffee. Add to this his chain-smoking as he writes a script and the terribly irregular hours he keeps, and you have someone who is rapidly burning himself out.

As for his writing process, we never really get to know the specifics of how Davies does what he does. As he explains in his first email, the entire process takes place in his head and he comments often that even if he knows what will happen later in the story, if he gets stuck on page 1, then he doesn’t go past page 1 until the problem is solved. What does this tendency lead to? Procrastination. Of the worst kind. It’s as if he wants the first draft to be his last draft. So while he doesn’t describe the process of writing a script, what he describes in his emails to Cook is the process he puts his mind, body, and emotions though as he squeezes out yet another 10 pages before collapsing at 3 a.m. or sunrise.

Some of the book’s most horrific passages to me include his self-laceration before the altar of his procrastination. He oftentimes doesn’t start his script until well after it’s due, and sometimes not even then. He is constantly terrified of the challenges that are set before him and that he sets before himself – how do you whip up a galaxy-spanning story when you’re dog-tired from rewriting other scripts, making decisions about what effects to cut from another script to meet the budget, and worrying about leaks to the press that will be badly managed by BBC Publicity?

He is blessed by having understanding producers who rearrange schedules and budgets so he can have the creative room to craft his story and script – and still he procrastinates! Davies laments to Cook that the cast is off to watch a concert being given by a recent guest star on the show, yet he is stuck in Cardiff writing a script. On the side, he’s also created a spin-off series called “Torchwood” and with other writers crafts a 5-part story that will air on 5 consecutive nights. He attends story meetings, they hash out the fates of certain characters – and still he hasn’t started writing his share of the scripts, which leaves the other writers having to write around him.

A Doctor Who Christmas story, “The Next Doctor,” had a grand but rather weak ending. Davies writes on seeing the episode later that he knows now what the problem was and how to solve it, but of course it’s too late. His procrastinatory writing style and the unbelievable pressures of being responsible for a multi-million pound franchise that employs hundreds of people in Cardiff take their toll.

As a writer, I was most interested in what he says he does and what he actually does. He says he hates writing treatments (a precis of the story’s plot and themes) and yet proceeds to write treatments in his emails to Cook. And when he realizes that he’s done so, he’s surprised to find that he’s solved a thorny story problem or gotten an idea that will spur the next burst of ideas and decisions. I wanted to ask Davies – are you listening to yourself? Are you seeing what actually works for you?

Davies often has some poignant regrets and reflections on the way that “Doctor Who” chews up and devours his energy and ideas. I was not aware that Davies rewrote every script before he considered it good enough to pass along to the production crew. Oftentimes, the amount of work he put in would have earned him a co-writer’s credit yet he refused to take on-screen credit for it. (This is probably why, even though the stories in the RTD era may have been uneven, the tone and voice of the show remained consistent throughout. By contrast, the Moffat era’s stories have varied in both quality and tone.) So, in addition to the stories he is in charge of writing, he’s also rewriting every script that he has commissioned from other writers. The Writer’s Tale  includes an example of a few pages of script submitted by another writer and then Davies’ rewrite of the scene; it’s fascinating to study. The information from the original script is there, but the patter between the Doctor and Donna in Davies’ rewrite is more lively, energetic, and funny.

Steven Moffat has said that the writer must think about the big, action-packed movie idea he’s been waiting years to write –  and that’s a good place to start a Doctor Who story. Davies complains and rages that some of his best ideas, the ones he was saving for a miniseries or when he had more time to really develop them, have to be sacrificed to the merciless production schedule. Case in point: the dark “Turn Left,” which supposes that the Doctor died and then all sorts of disasters happen to Earth that he could have prevented. The result is England as a police state – an idea and image that Davies wanted to address as a subject on its own. Instead, due to production mishaps (including his own procrastination), he has to sacrifice a cherished idea to be a subplot on a Doctor Who story. He bridles and kicks and screams about the unfairness of it all and it kills him to know that he has no alternatives. The story needs to be written. He has no other ideas, or no other ideas that will work. And the show must go on.

Another worry he has – and a legitimate one, I think – is his fear that his time on Doctor Who will leave him so changed that he can’t anymore write scripts about two people simply sitting in a kitchen and talking. Davies made his name writing comedy and drama, not science fiction (even though he had been a Doctor Who fan all his life), with two shows in particular that brought him to the public’s attention: “Queer as Folk,” about the lives of three gay man in Manchester, and “Bob & Rose,” about a love affair between a gay man and a straight woman. These are real people in the everyday world, free of genre considerations. But will he be able to go back? Since leaving Doctor Who in 2010, he helped write and produce another “Torchwood” mini-series and is planning a series called “Wizards vs. Aliens.”

Throughout the book, and as evidenced by his long, funny, chatty, gossipy emails, Davies lives the life of a working writer. That’s what I most admire – he is not precious about the writing process or about the profession. Writing is a job and the writer shows up to do his job – end of story (so to speak). He knew he was in charge of a show that consumed an enormous amount of public money, and he was zealous in ensuring the public got its money’s worth. While he has a generous spirit and seems to be a genuinely nice man, I have no doubt he could be maddening to work with and could be cold in dealing with personnel or other issues that would affect the show’s quality.

I am hoping someone is planning to do a similar book with The Moff! And if they don’t, that’s OK. For me, The Writer’s Tale is a book so big and so rich that I will happily re-read it every Christmas.

 

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This is why my favorite quote on writing comes not from a book about writing but from a book about meditation—The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise by Karlfried Graf von Dürkheim. Though he wrote about Zen meditation practice (and unfortunately in a sexist way), most of what he says applies to the practice of writing as well:

“Only to that extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring….

"Thus the aim of the practice is not to develop an attitude which allows a man to acquire a state of harmony and peace wherein nothing can ever trouble him. On the contrary, practice should teach him to let himself be assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered….

"Only if we repeatedly venture through the zones of annihilation can our contact with the Divine being, which is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable.”

To write honestly is to pass through the “zones of annihilation.” It is to be “assaulted, perturbed, moved, insulted, broken, and battered.”

And if you’re willing to undergo all that—to see whether your ideas can survive the purging fire of editing—then you can emerge with something that’s firm, stable, and worth sharing with the world.