Language as a Constraint, Constraint as Structure
I do not think in words.
I do not think in images either, although sometimes ideas land like falling leaves on the spongy field of my visual cortex, or else on the solid concrete of the language processing centers of my brain, and are thus expressed readily to the outside world in one of those standard formats. But before they land, if they land, they float effortlessly, swirling around according to their own patterns, floating without gravity, without time, without structure.
Their medium is “idea.” It’s a format akin to undeveloped film in that ideas can’t leave the darkroom of my mind without being processed, translated into another medium. Everything that comes out of me is translated, and I feel acutely aware of this translating process. This tends to go in cycles, and I have weeks, sometimes whole months where it seems nothing is quite translating correctly. Which suggests perhaps that there is room for error on the part of the translator.
Just like with translation, just like with photography, even in a successfully translated idea, so much of what I’d hoped to capture is lost. Endless cropping and processing and editing, hundreds of tiny compromises in service of the preservation of some key aspect of the essence of the idea, is always shadowed by the recognition that I will never express the entirety of an idea, and often, in preserving some formal element I sacrifice function altogether. Often, the function of an idea exists only in that dream-space of the mind, it cannot survive the journey to Earth.
And worse yet, something is added. Ideas expressed in other media take on the properties of the format they are translated into; there are inescapable characteristics of images that say more about “Image” than “Idea,” much less the specific idea at hand.
It’s a frustrating process.
Asymmetrically, elements of outside media become internalized and inform, contort, reshape, expand, and fight my ideas. Language patterns impact thought patterns, rooting my output in time and space, the Milky Way rendered in wood and spinning, fixed inside a cuckoo clock. Ideas originate outside of time for me, as evidenced by old diaries which read like primitive but utterly recognizable relatives of my sketchbooks, the same thought dawning with renewed urgency over and over in cycle.
But reality extracts its toll every time, an impressively thorough border crossing. What I wrote in 1995 sounds somehow both like “7 year old” and “1995” as much as it sounds like “Idea.” Nothing truly novel or fully exuberant slips through un-tampered with on its way into this world, but everything is allowed to pass back out of the world and into me unchecked.
So, then, structure always finds its way into the formless void of my interior self, and structure is required for an idea to survive outside my brain, a hard coating like the shell of a beetle, or else both a spine to hold it upright and a sufficient skin to hold it in.
As is so often the case, the curse is the blessing.
You can fight against constraints like a fish pulled out of the water, or you can learn to breathe, to adapt to the medium you find yourself within. Is a fish on land a fish any longer? Does it matter? Perhaps not to the fish determined only to survive.
Is the beetle’s shell a protection, or a prison? Does it give the beetle an essential form, or prevent it from even dreaming about attempting a graceful stretch, or a glance at the stars?
Patterns of both verbal language and visual language provide ways of grounding my thoughts, and there is true utility in fashioning one’s creative output to withstand environmental forces. Some might call it knowing your audience. If my audience exists outside my mind, I’m going to have to get better at translating. But in order for the work to be meaningfully like the original, the idea, the good translator knows to preserve some of that strangeness, some of that unique cadence, some of that foreign beauty that compelled me to try to translate the thing in the first place.