Here’s another post-constellational metaphor for a mode of thinking and writing, from Sarah Vowell’s interview with The Onion A/V Club, with reference to her new book on Hawaiian history Unfamiliar Fishes:
AVC: Your writing also features these tangents that circulate back around to the main thesis and manage to fit well in the context of the larger topic. When you’re writing, do you craft these tangents consciously, or do they come about naturally in the way you write?
SV: Both. When I went to Hawaii, I had never seen a banyan tree before.A banyan tree is this tree that starts with one trunk, and then when the branches branch off, little tendrils sprout off the branches and eventually grow down to the ground and take root and become another trunk, and more and more branches and tendrils develop off of that, so each banyan tree becomes its own monster-looking forest. And when I first saw one of those trees, I thought, “That is how I think.” Little thoughts just sprout off and drip down and take root, and then they end up supporting more and more tendrils of thought, until it all coheres into one thing, but it’s still rickety-looking and spooky. I like to think that my tangents have a point. I do love a tangent. I think part of it is inherent within the discipline of non-fiction.
I always found that when I was a college student and researching my papers always the night before—and this was before the Internet—I’d be in the library and I’d find one thing, and see something else and want to follow that, which now is how the Internet has taught us to think, to click on link after link after link. But there is something inherent in research that fosters that way of thinking, and then there’s this other interesting thing, and that builds and builds. When I’m writing, I have all these index cards, and I sit on my living-room rug and move them around until they make sense. When I’m talking, it’s just the unedited me. Anyway, there are just sometimes asides, some of them are just about the joy of fact. I find facts fun, and sometimes I’ll just put something in if I think it’s interesting, even though it’s not going anywhere.
You can think about the banyan tree as an associative style of writing, but also as a new kind of community, and way of writing in public — or better still, both at the same time. A matrix.
Also, let’s not forget to note “the joy of fact”! A greater phrase even than Ezra Pound’s “luminous detail.” I believe I need a T-shirt for this. Or create a small shrine for a school of nonfiction writing, devoted to digging in the crates and extracting, not only facts, but their joy.