I don't think in words

This was published back in 2016 and summarises an issue that I have. It's been one of the most popular posts on my old blog, which is surprising, but it might point more to the fact that I'm not alone.

One of my personal frustrations is my inability to get my thoughts into words. What seems so clear in my head usually comes out as a jumbled mess and needs to be carefully crafted into something that can be communicated. It slows the process down a lot, and an idea often has to spend months dwelling around in various forms, being nibbled at and moulded into shapes before it’s ready to come out.

I thought tonight that it would be great if I could write more… But that’s not really the problem. I write plenty. What I struggle with is the fact that I don’t think in words. My thoughts take a very different form and are something that I struggle to describe.

They are visual and sensory objects to me. They are often pieces that join together – not like a puzzle but as a truth. Complexity is there and can be felt rather than explained. There is a physicality to these thoughts, a real weight and mass. They are solid rather than ephemeral and gossamer. What I struggle with is translating these truths into words. To encode and abstract them into language and structure them in text.

An example is probably my first memory and inclination of this problem. It was back when I was studying at university, and I was trying to think of a project to develop for my major. One of the ideas I had was to map a four-dimensional space. In my mind it was (and is) as clear anything but any attempt to verbalise – even to visualise it is hopeless. I spent a long time with that one, eventually dropping out and heading out into the workforce. There were a number of factors in that decision, but my inability to express an idea scared me – how could I spend time on something that I can’t quite describe?

What tends to come out is not what I see, especially in its initial form. The best comparison is Terry Pratchett’s description of the colour of magic:

It was octarine [the eighth colour], the colour of magic. It was alive and glowing and vibrant and it was the undisputed pigment of the imagination, because wherever it appeared it was a sign that mere matter was a servant of the powers of the magical mind. It was enchantment itself. But Rincewind always thought it looked a sort of greenish-purple.

That’s what happens to my ideas when I translate them to words – they become a greenish-purple – a poor representation of my minds eye. An inferior description that does little to capture the truth and true nature of the thought.