Form and function in writing

Wittgenstein once wrote that “my difficulty is only an – enormous – difficulty of expression.” I took that quote from his Wikiquote page, and I can’t really look at it without wanting to re-write it as “my only difficulty is an – enormous – difficulty of expression”; that I find it so difficult to avoid such an edit* is one of the many problems I encounter when attempting to write, of which more below. My own problem, however, could be more accurately expressed as “an enormous difficulty of knowledge, understanding, focus, and expression”; after all, I am no Wittgenstein.

What I find most challenging about writing is that it isn’t any one singular cognitive process. It consists of several intertwining processes. You’ve got to know the idea you want to express; you have to understand the idea you want to express; you have to appreciate which elements of the idea are useful and relevant, and which are not; and finally you’ve got to be able to express the idea clearly and elegantly.

Each of these is a distinct type of cognitive activity. Knowing which specific point one wishes to get across is often surprisingly difficult. When writing I often encounter a sort of factorial explosion of ideas – like the polar opposite of writer’s block – in which one thought leads to another thought which leads to another two or three thoughts.

I have only so much RAM in my head. Shortly after beginning writing I often find myself overwhelmed with possibility. I would like to hold a single idea in my head at a time; I picture it floating with crystalline distinction within my Cartesian theatre, without any connections or linkages with anything else; but it seems almost impossible to do this. The crystal grows and mutates and draws in other ideas and concepts and I am left with a head encrusted with nonsense.

Understanding presents another – separate – problem. Oftentimes the reason I am compelled to write in the first place is that I do not yet fully understand an idea, concept, or theory; and so I write long, rambling essays in which I come to no solid conclusions and which express nothing but my own ignorance.

Focus. There isn’t really much to say about this that isn’t already demonstrated by the present document. I find it difficult to focus. This is as true in writing as it is in my wider life; in fact, I find it almost impossible to focus on any one task for more than ten minutes or so. I don’t know if this is an intrinsic element of my personality or simply a consequence of living in a distracted age, but there it is.

The final aspect of writing that I find problematic is that of performance. As Richard Lanham argues in Analyzing Prose, all writing is necessarily performative; you can’t help but strike a pose, even if it is one of “objectivity” or “transparency.” There is a gap – a fascinating gap – between ideas and language and the particular symbolic systems we use to express ideas. Words are distinct from ideas, and arranging words in a pleasing order is a different task to developing pleasing ideas. In my first paragraph I couldn’t help but re-write the original Wittgenstein quotation into what I consider a more pleasing form, whilst retaining the same meaning as the original. But does it really have the same meaning? By placing “difficulty” before “only” in the original Wikiquoted form the emphasis is placed on the difficulty itself, whereas in my altered version placing the “only” before the first “difficulty” deflates the first half of the sentence and places the emphasis on the “difficulty of expression”. This makes it more quotable. Or perhaps not.

*Apparently the quotation was taken from his journal entry, which may well have been in German, in which case reforming the particular arrangement of the sentence might be entirely legitimate as a direct translation of the original text – I don’t know)