The Writing Process Blog Hop

The Writing Process Blog Hop is a movement which asks that writers answer the four Writing Process questions and then nominate a few others to do the same.  You then thank the writer who nominated you, pointing to their blog. So, thank you Peter Macinnis for the nomination.

What are you working on?

sl-memory

I am finalising the manuscript for an academic book based on my research into the extraordinary memory methods indigenous cultures use to retain huge amounts of practical and scientific knowledge without writing anything down. I propose that  enigmatic archaeological sites such as Stonehenge are primarily as knowledge spaces – somewhere to aid memory and convey information, most of which is practical, the stuff survival depends on. The book will be published next year by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture. Academic titles are like that!

I have just completed a proposal for a book for the mainstream reader on similar topics, with more emphasis on memory and a larger range of archaeological sites. The working title is Ancient memory spaces. It is now with my agent, Lyn Tranter.

Lots more about that research on my other blog, Memory Spaces.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

This is a hard question, because I am not really sure what my genre is. I know it is non-fiction, but it is really across disciplines. The Cambridge book is clearly archaeology. In that genre, no-one else has applied all the research on ‘primary orality’  – the way communications work in cultures which have no contact with writing. No-one else is linking formal memory training  and non-literate knowledge systems and the archaeology on non-literate sites. Yet the people who built Stonehenge, Avebury, Chaco Canyon, Poverty Point, Easter Island and so many other amazing sites around the world were non-literate. They must have had complex knowledge systems and they must have used memory systems to manage to keep so much stuff in memory.

The ancient Greeks call this artificial memory – not just being reminded of things but formally working to commit it to memory by studying. Oral tradition isn’t all about religion and history, as so often implied. It is also about a vast amount of information like animal and plant classification and characteristics (thousands of them!), navigation, genealogies, astronomy, geology, rules, surviving resource stress, resource rights … How do they remember so much stuff? And isn’t it logical that people in prehistory used the same methods?

But there is so many other aspects – the role of art, portable memory devices, how amazingly effective these methods are … it just goes on and on. I want to tell the world about it all!

Why do you write what you do?

Because this is what I am so interested in at the moment and my brain doesn’t like working on anything other than what it is interested in. What bliss that I can do just that!

I still love my spiders and topics of previous books. But I must write about what I am reading now and convey all the wonderful things I found out when I was doing a PhD on this topic.

I believe that what I am writing about is important. I can’t write just for fun. And I’m no good at humour. So I write seriously. It’s just the way my words come out.

How does your writing process work?

Oh dear – this could be a very long answer. Ask me if you want to know more! I have all sorts of systems in place developed over the years of writing. I have a studio (I call it my Garret) where there is no noise and no food. I am surrounded by a whole lot of things which are very different to the real world and so it just feels totally different which seems to make my thinking change track. Everything is written or pasted into exercise books, 5 mm grid only, each covered in coloured paper and contact which acts as a code. There are 100 of them neatly on the shelves.

I start each writing session with a journal update which divides the outside world from my writing world and focuses me on the task at hand. I write every day – even if it is only notes and even if it isn’t any good. I just want to write and hope that someone out there wants to read my words.

And when I am gardening or walking or cooking or waiting in queues, I have imaginary conversations with people about whatever I am thinking about. Endlessly. Then these conversations become the next page of words. It’s a lovely lifestyle.

Tagging Todd Landman: academic, writer on really important topics like human rights, and [wait for it] magician!

Tagging Narelle Harris: a writer in many genres including speculative fiction, apps, Melbourne Guides … but she won’t be back in Australia until September, something to look forward to!

Non-fiction – long, short and very very short

Writers aiming to pitch a book to a publisher are advised to prepare a 25 word description to attract attention.*

If asked for more, they should be ready with a 125 word expansion. Then, having raised the interest during a query phone call, be ready to expand further with ideas on the intended audience, marketing and planned format.

I also find this task invaluable to be ready for when people ask what I am writing at the moment. The questions they ask often give me ideas and directions, or highlight an issue I hadn’t even considered. They want a 25 word description, and then maybe 125. They don’t want me to wax lyrical for half an hour, even though that is my natural inclination.

Today I discovered a new reason for developing this skill.  I volunteer at the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Museum as part of the curatorial research team. We have been asked by the new Director, Jennifer Kalionis, to work on a variety of approaches to improve the information available to gallery and museum visitors. The image below will lead you to the Gallery’s website.

art-gallery

I have started with a bark painting from Oenpelli in Western Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. It would be easy to write a book on this incredible art which demonstrates a continuous tradition for at least 20,000 years. But visitors to the Gallery do not want a book on each art work. Jennifer has asked for:

1. An expanded label which includes a paragraph, at most two, of background to the bark. Just one paragraph, when I want to write a book.

2. A children’s label presenting the information in a way which will encourage children to take an interest and feel engaged. Maybe two paragraphs. (I know adults read the children’s labels – I always do.)

3. One page of background for visitors who want to know more. Only one page? Oh dear.

4. A more detailed background, provenance, sources and so on for the Gallery’s records. Maybe, she suggested, aware how much I was writing, a few pages?

Our team is also talking about the possibility of electronic information displayed on a visitor’s mobile phone when a QR code is scanned. That is a different format again – it has to look good and be easy to read on a small device. No long sentences!

This is one of the great aspects of writing non-fiction. One set of research can lead to all sorts of outcomes. I can guarantee the Oenpelli art on bark and in rock shelters will feature in a future book. And I think an article for a magazine is forming in my mind.

I love research. I love the way I can then turn that research into so many writing projects.

* An excellent book on writing proposals is “A Decent Proposal” by Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth (Keesing Press).

Post and stone circles – everywhere

These barrels mark the places where a massive timber circle once stood. Just like timber and stone circles all over the UK, Ireland and Western Europe. But where is it?

pp-post-circle-web

So where is the plaza with this familiar form of monument? Louisiana. USA. Constructed by hunter gatherer fishers amid their mounds and massive earth works (note the scale on the plan below!), the Poverty Point culture never farmed.

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Plan of the earthworks, mounds and post circles at the World Heritage Site of Poverty Point, Louisiana. Image (c) Lynne Kelly.

The Poverty Point Site consists of massive earthworks built  3,400 years ago: five mounds shown around six C-shaped ridges enclosing a huge plaza. Within the plaza, 25 – 30 timber circles were built, but were not all standing at the same time. Like all knowledge sites, it was constantly changed.

The geometric design of Poverty Point is unique – there is nothing like it anywhere else. It is a masterpiece. When constructed, the Poverty Point earthworks were the largest in North America, the major political, trading and ceremonial centre of its day.

Why did people in America’s southeast build monuments so reminiscent of those built by Neolithic cultures in the UK, Ireland and Western Europe?

Because this is the best way to create the necessary memory spaces if an oral culture is to settle and replicate a knowledge system once based in the broad landscape.

The image of the barrels marking the post circle from Jenny Ellerbe can be found on the Poverty Point World Heritage Initiative document which can be downloaded from the site – just click on the image below. The plan of the site has been adapted from that document as well.

poverty-point-websiteIt wasn’t only in Louisiana that post circles were built by Native Americans. One circle which has been reconstructed is in Illinois, at the mound building site of Cahokia. The ancient Native American city was active long after Poverty Point, from about 600 to 1400 AD. Archaeologists even name the timber circle Woodhenge after a wooden post circle in Wiltshire, England.

cahokia_woodhenge2
Woodhenge: The reconstructed post circle at Cahokia, southern Illinois.

The oral cultures in North America and the European Neolithic were so far apart in both space and time that they almost certainly had no contact with each other. It is no coincidence that they used very similar structures at the ceremonial sites. These are practical monuments which served a very practical purpose. They are memory spaces used to aid memory of all the practical, scientific, historic and spiritual knowledge of the culture.

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