Thoughts Into Words

I can't quite put it into words but I have this idea about what it means to be a strong, independent woman...

I can’t quite put it into words but I have this idea about what it means to be a strong, independent woman…  (Artwork by Charles Holbert- not me)

The interesting thing about reading books in rapid succession is that you start to notice themes being carried over from one to the next. Sometimes the themes are superficial, for example I read “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides which featured characters from the eastern Mediterranean and quickly followed it by “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb who used his own eastern Mediterranean heritage as examples in several of his arguments.

Sometimes, though, I am interested to see an idea play out over several unrelated books. The idea that I have been observing lately is the concept that it is possible to know and understand something without being able to put it into words. Like some kind of wild idea-beast I have tracked this idea through three or four books now: both fiction and non-fiction, by completely unrelated authors and on reasonably unrelated subjects.

“Antifragile” (I apologize, I’m probably going to be talking about this “Antifragile” book for a while now since I keep chewing over it in my mind) was the first book to bring the idea to my attention. In one chapter the author describes how cultures who lack the vocabulary to describe certain colors (blue, for example, in Homeric Greek) are still able to observe those colors even though they can only describe them indirectly (wine-dark seas).

This experience is familiar to me: in high school I was fairly competent at stitching costumes for the theatre, but during a phone interview with a costume designer while applying to an All-State theatre show I was asked if I knew how to do a “basting stitch”. The question struck me dumb: I knew I could do a basting stitch, but I couldn’t describe it. (Incidentally a basting stitch is a straight, plain stitch used to attach two pieces of fabric together at a seam.) I was still accepted to the All-State team.

This concept of being unable to articulate knowledge was also a strong theme in a book called “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman. His thesis argument is that the emotions provide a comprehensive additional-intelligence in the brain that is not as easy to quantify as intellect. Part of this difficulty in measurement comes from the fact that a lot of emotional intelligence can’t be put into words.

Most recently, and perhaps most humorously and eloquently, this idea of Thoughts Into Words cropped up in a fiction book called “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” by Terry Pratchett. Leave it to Terry Pratchett to distill a complex neuro-scientific idea into a fantasy story about sentient rats. In one scene a rat named Darktan has just become the chief and is thinking about one of the smaller but smarter rats named Dangerous Beans:

“He’s a trap hunter, just like me. He goes ahead of us and finds the dangerous ideas and thinks about them and traps them in words and makes them safe, and then he shows us the way through.”

The concept of putting ideas into words is especially compelling to me because it is what makes storytelling powerful. Being able to put concepts into narrative is central to what I am learning to do as a filmmaker.

I occasionally worry that attending a graduate program for film production is just an extremely expensive form of Trade School. And perhaps this is true: filmmakers and storytellers aren’t going to discover the cure for cancer or the next largest prime number in existence or a new model for global business relationships. We aren’t the ones who discover new ideas by cracking our foreheads agains the face of existing knowledge: we’re the ones trapping the new ideas in words and making them safe and showing others the way through.

~ by Gwydhar Gebien on July 3, 2013.

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