Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ideas and Prose

"I must think French and write English, be very still and talk wild, act the sage and remain a fool or a dunce." (Henry Miller)

There is a big difference between having an idea and writing it down. This difference is amplified in the case of having an idea in, say, Danish and writing it down in English. The situation becomes even more complicated when the idea is based on reading in English (or, worse, French or German.) Finally, in the act of expression, an idea is often clarified, and once an idea becomes clear to us it begins to change.

Last week, I warned against forgetting the distance between "the surface of your style and the depth of your ideas". (This morning, I must admit, I'm struggling to express what I meant by that.) Two different sentences can express the same idea. One sentence can certainly express an idea more adequately than another. And the same can be said of a group of sentences; one sentence may be a more or less adequate expression of an idea than another depending on the sentences that come before it and after it.

There is no formula for dealing with the disparity between thinking and writing. The only proven method is to think often and to write often, but not to do either for too many hours at a time. Plan your work so that you are thinking, looking, reading, walking, talking, listening and, of course, eating and sleeping, a little every day. This will give your ideas and your prose time to develop at their own pace. It takes time. Let it do so.


Jonathan said...

You don't really have an idea until it takes some linguistic form. You might have an intuition, a general feeling about something, but it isn't an idea yet unless it has words associated with it.

Thomas said...

There's probably a sense in which we agree about that. But...

... there has to be some difference between an idea and its expression if we are to make sense of both trivial things like the expression of the same idea in different languages, and more significant things like the more or less apt expression of an idea.

An idea is not identical with a linguistic form. You can "have" an idea and not yet "know how to express it". Again, there is always the trivial case of the native Danish or Spanish speaker who is struggling to put it in English.

I'm trying to get at the (I'd argue) fact that some people are pretty good at having ideas but fail (sometimes out of sheer laziness) to develop the craft of expressing them in words.

Also, I would argue that musicians and carpenters and athletes and dancers sometimes display mastery of an "idea" without words, and may not be able to express that same mastery in words.

Jonathan said...

I agree. There could be non-verbal ideas like [I think that couch has been moved and I am confused] that even a dog could have. I also agree that the idea is also logically separate from its particular verbal expression. But usually if somebody cannot express the idea verbally at all in at least his or her native language then it doesn't YET exist. It's a pre-idea.

Thomas said...

I suppose I'm also worried about the equal and opposite possibility: some people are able to string words together in imitation of the style of their discipline but are unable, in face to face confrontation, to develop the idea ... sometimes the test here is actually non-verbal. Can you draw a picture or diagram?

My point is just that a good thinker might still need to work on his or her prose style, and even a pretty good writer might still need to learn how really to think.

Jonathan said...

Email me if you want to be a guest poster on stupid motivational tricks some time.