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In Which A Workman Blames His Tools

July 7, 2011

I remember an incident, back when I was a child, when I was Right and they were Wrong. (Everybody has these, I know. Please bear with me.) The teacher had asked her seventh grade class if a circle was a lot of very short lines, all connected, or one single straight line that was bent. In my mind I saw a triangle become a square, the square become a pentagon, dividing and repeating itself, devolving into the infinitude of a circle. To my surprise, the rest of the class opted for the other answer.

In vain I insisted that if lines were defined as straight, they could not also be curved. Our teacher even ultimately came down on the side of the single-curved-line theory, and I argued no more. I was not trying to show off or be clever – highly out of character for me, when I was thirteen – but I could not bend words to an insight I knew was important, and ought to be shared. (I hadn’t thought of drawing the triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon progression on the blackboard.) But I was sharply aware that I had failed to actually impart my idea to my fellow students – the idea, I learned years later, that was fundamental to the development of calculus.

Language was not then the tool for me that it is now. This should not be surprising, of course. But what should be surprising is that I can look back over the two paragraphs I composed over dinner and wrote just now and see how inadequate they are. If language is a tool over which we have, for all purposes, infinite control, why is the quality of the work not always satisfactory?

I don’t mean the details that I intentionally omitted for brevity (like how tolerant and sensitive my teacher and classmates were, on balance, with my immature self); tradeoffs need to be made, and perfection is impossible. And I am leaving the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis aside here as well: English may be ill-suited to the job I am asking it to do, but I do not think it could be so badly conceived relative to other languages as to make the mere telling of an anecdote cumbersome. There is something more fundamental involved: I reread the last line, and I seem perhaps a little too proud of my idea, a little too distracted by my own precociousness, but then if I omit the bit about it being the basis of calculus then the weight of significance that ought to be carried by the sentence falls to the ground, lifeless.

It could be that I am not the master of the language I suppose myself to be, but I have heard similar complaints from other writers – ones who certainly are experts. It could also be that, since constraints of space leave one with only so much precision to spread around, the fault lies in the very necessity of making tradeoffs, but I do not think even a universe of words would make transparent what I want to be clear.

Perhaps the problem began at dinner. Words in my mind seem to sing with a melody that dies as soon as I kneel on them and forcibly pin them to the page. I see no way around that, though. The problem does not lie in memory, because I have written sentences down exactly as I have thought them and the music is still not there. A more likely answer, I think, is that a writer’s literary taste may be naturally biased against their own work. It is not magic if you can see the wires, and if you are going to create an illusion with any competence you certainly have to know how you do it.

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