My Writing on Thoughts: My Thoughts on Writing

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Does precise writing stifle creativity?

As a species, we communicate primarily through writing. Literacy has no doubt improved learning, but does the act of translating thoughts into words harden cognition and narrow our creative abilities?

For me, thinking is seldom linear: imagine shmoo-shaped colors, textures, and emotions rubbing, tugging, and mixing in a Bose-Einstein condensate. Somehow, that system produces a communicable idea. 

Whenever someone asks me a question, I immediately have a pinging sensation. Then, somehow I translate that into a response. Ask me again and there’s less pinging, but you’ll get the same or similar response (and perhaps a hint of irritation). It’s like my brain has created a record of the question and a shortcut for me to make thinking easier. 

I shall call it learning.

The problem is that precise writing is rigid. (Ignore creative writing, poetry, and other artful forms for the moment.) So, if we communicate our thoughts primarily with rigid tools, over time our brains create shortcuts and scaffolding that promotes rigid thinking, making things easier.

See the problem?

Thankfully, not all communication is verbal. Artists (as writers categorize them) use movement, imagery, sound, void, touch, emotion, and all sorts of sensory to (as they say) express themselves. So do athletes. (Not so much the mathletes.)

Generally, artists who excel visually, aurally, and spatially come up short linguistically. They’re called “creatives”, and their expressive mediums are far less rigid; but, that doesn’t mean they’re not useful for precise communication. 

But, that’s another post for another day.

7 comments
Sean Tierney
Sean Tierney

so basically, are we handcuffing our thoughts by wrangling them into these agreed-upon constructs of language for the purpose of communication? Absolutely we are, but it seems to be a net win given what the alternative is. Think about how the scene would be if everyone had more enlightened ideas but were walking around speaking gibberish unable to connect with others. It seems we opt to sacrifice purity of thought for the benefits we get by being able to transmit and digest these to others.

This topic reminds me of Noam Chomsky's "universal grammar" concept: "can thought exist independently of language? If so, isn't the underlying universal grammar just restricted by the elements of spoken/written word?"

@brianlburns has a good point that the writing exercise itself typically leads the writer to refine the quality of the idea. It sounds like you're questioning "is the raw initial impulse more pure and therefore more valuable?" Perhaps. I see you've written about Malcolm Gladwell in the past - his concept of "thinslicing" would certainly support the advice of not second-guessing your instinct.

I interpret @Robin's point to be "language:thought::rails:ruby." The Rails/Merb frameworks for Ruby are the products of people solving and sharing common problems and agreeing upon constructs to use so they can focus their attention up stack to higher order challenges. If we can accept that analogy then starting with building blocks of phonics and letters, combining them to words, combined to sentences, etc. We can begin to move up stack and use these to interface with others and build upon thought work that has already been done, the result of which is the ability to skip the stuff that's been hashed out and focus on higher order topics.

@Lauren- as far as "why never need to communicate my exact thoughts to someone" - you don't. You only need to communicate them insofar as they help you advance your cause, whatever that is. It would be a boring world indeed if we were able to distill all thought precisely into code and transmit that to others for lossless consumption. Let's hope that day never comes because variety and interpretation is the spice of life.

Ultimately though, I believe a world with language of some kind is a better alternative to the scenario of gibberish-speaking geniuses unable to share and synthesize the thought work of others.

sean

Lauren
Lauren

Thinking about ideas in a certain way creates pathways in our brains. So when we think about other ideas, it's much easier obviously to go back to the pathways already created. You mentioned this in your post.

Do you think that if your what you say could actually happen, and we could simultaneously access multiple pathways from one line of prose, these pathways would ultimately meet at a common place? That would be pretty amazing.

And, if they never meet, quite possibly that's all the better.

Michael Gruen
Michael Gruen

Lauren: "In fact, why would I ever need to communicate my exact thoughts to another person? Would I even want to understand another person’s thoughts exactly? What would that level of understanding get me?"

I don't know! That's the point. We use writing to communicate a singular point, and I wonder if our penchant for pointed language limits us to understanding things.

What if you could simultaneously (and unambiguously) understand multiple view points in one line of prose? What would happen? Where could we go from there?

Lauren
Lauren

An idea is refined in order to communicate the idea effectively in words. But two people can never hold the exact same idea. Even if an idea is conceived together (which is the only real way to have two individuals equally participating in one idea), each person's idea will inevitably diverge at a point. But by refining it precisely, whether or not the idea was conceived together, each person has his own point from which to begin thinking about it.

I cannot help but think of my favorite precise writer, Emily Dickinson. Her words were the birth of many of my ideas, but I am confident that they were not the same as her ideas. Arguably, that is the point of (reading) creative writing.

But beyond creative writing, and back to thoughts and ideas in general, would I ever want to hold the exact same ideas as anyone else? In fact, why would I ever need to communicate my exact thoughts to another person? Would I even want to understand another person's thoughts exactly? What would that level of understanding get me?

Michael Gruen
Michael Gruen

Of course writing and the writing process, in itself, is creative.

But, I think we need to refine ideas because they make thoughts easier to communicate with writing, not because they necessarily need to be refined.

Why can't we embed all of the angles in writing? Why do you include only what you 'need'? Writing limits what you can communicate, and in its restrictiveness, it stifles creativity. (But, it does make writing more creative.)

I do also think that restriction can foster creativity, but that's only if you embrace it.

This is why this post is filed under "thoughts" and not "declarations". :)

Robin
Robin

By writing precisely about complicated matters, you are creating new ways for people to understand something that they may not have understood before, you are making it require less intelligence to understand something.

The paradoxical thing about creativity is after you do something creative, it ceases being creative. Non-writing activities seem more creative than writing because there are only so many letters and words but essentially infinite gestures, colors, shapes etc.

brianlburns
brianlburns

A (slight) counterpoint... I'm a writer. I have to!

I consider the writing process to be creative. I have an idea (or if it's you were talking about, have many ideas at once), and then I work through the writing process to refine that idea. I roll it over, I look at it from different angles, I talk about it out-loud myself, and finally, when I've got what I want, I write it down in the most precise way I can. In other words, I go through the creative process, get the lesson I need to get from the subject, and then I write.

After all that, why would I need to revisit it? That's like drawing up a house plan, pouring the foundation, building the frame, doing the finish work, and then afterwards, tearing it down and re-doing it. All for the sake of creativity? No. You just move onto the next house (and the next creative process).

That's what makes sense to me.

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