“Always something missing”: caught between thought and expression

Maria shares her experience of setting out to write about something but being unable to choose the language in which she could better express it. She raises questions about the relationship between words, thoughts, and language(s), and wonders if, in the end, it is in the part that is "always missing" (the part that resides between the thoughts and their formation into words) that the "magic" of writing resides.

I turn my eyes to the clock as I release the backspace key, returning to the “zero-word-document state”. It shows 12:03. I have been sitting at my desk since 8:00, with a very clear intent to write… well, something

(statement that brings me to 12:04 and probably a count of about forty words – now about sixty)

Sixty words inscribed not on a tabula rasa but on a palimpsest. For, all this time, I had been typing continuously. In fact, I have possibly broken my record of “staring at a blank screen – typing black symbols on a blank screen – deleting black symbols from screen – staring at a re-blanked screen – typing different black symbols on it – backspacing to blank – and back”. 

And now, more than four hours into this dance I try to figure out what has kept me back today. I can say with certainty that it wasn’t the lack of ideas, nor the loss for words, and neither the self-censorship that so often cripples one who writes. Rather, today I am being held back by something more fundamental – something that has to do more with my “voice” than with what is to be articulated through that voice. 

To put it differently, today I am not struggling with expression, but with the medium of expression. 

Με άλλα λόγια, η σημερινή μου δυσκολία δεν έχει να κάνει με το περιεχόμενο της έκφρασης, αλλά με το μέσον της έκφρασης.

Ή, για να το πω άλλωσπως, τζείνο που με δυσκολέφκει σήμερα ένεν το τι θέλω να πω, αλλά με ήντα μέσο μπορώ να το πω.

Αre you confused? I am, too.

You see, I had some ideas, I had the motivation to write, the equipment by which to write, and I finally found some time to sit down and write. But once I began, I could not decide on the language in which I wanted to write. I started with English, the idiom in which I conduct most of my professional and academic activities and the one in which I currently experience the most significant part of my personal life.

It wasn’t doing it for me today. 

Then, I thought I should try to express myself in Greek. My “official” language, the one I was taught in school. This is probably the code I feel most competent writing in, the one in which I can express my most intricate poetic thoughts, and the one carrying my most nuanced writing timbre.

Again, something felt a bit off.

And then, I moved to Cypriot Greek. The linguistic idiom I was literally raised in, the intimate, the mother tongue – which I was, however, never taught how to write in. Still, it is the idiom I yell in(appropriate words in) when I hit my little toe on furniture (something that happens with annoying frequency), and the one in which I confess everything that really bothers me (when I finally decide to let it out). 

But, this morning, whatever linguistic idiom I tried to express myself in, I felt more than ever that there was always something missing. That a part of my thoughts did not find its way from my brain to the tips of my fingers and from there onto the screen. That there was always some residue left, which took a different shade and shape in each language.

Ok, I understand that this is not exactly the discovery of the century. After all, as intermediaries, words cannot carry the entire universe that a mental and emotional spark contains, and, of course, they cannot replicate a thought from the writer’s to the readers’/receivers’ mind (at least, until last time I checked, telepathy was not yet a thing).

And, even if they did, it doesn’t mean that they would carry more than a relational and relative truth – different of the source’s than the receiver’s – making everything a bit more complicated. Or, as by Nietzsche’s famous quote:

“Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth…. Through words and concepts we shall never reach beyond the wall off relations, to some sort of fabulous primal ground of things.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks

At the same time, though, words and thoughts are so tightly interconnected, with some linguists suggesting that without language there cannot be thought (linguistic determinism) and others that language influences the formation of thought (linguistic relativity). I cannot (and don’t want to) pretend that I am an expert on the subject. Fascinated as I might be by linguistics, I am far from able to make a well-informed argument about this complex subject. 

But I cannot help but ponder a bit on it while trying to make sense of today’s experience. So, if it is through language that thoughts are carved into existence, then which language has affected (or restricted) my thoughts today? And, if language influences the formation of thoughts, then why today’s words were constrained by language(s) use itself? Ultimately, if language is a formative medium for thoughts, then which of the three linguistic idioms I tried today has affected the development of my thoughts and, if any of the three did, then why did it not become a medium by which to express them?

I am currently two words over eight hundred and eighty (now eight hundred and ninety-five), the clock indicates 15:26 and I realize that my inability to find the language that I wanted to express my thoughts in led to new thoughts that, in a way, chose the language by which to be expressed. Again, I cannot say with certainty if the thoughts were created through language, or whether language itself had anything to do with their formation. 

What I can say, however, is that I will keep writing – and speaking – words in English, Greek, and Cypriot Greek, weaving thoughts into existence in hope that I will be ever able to communicate what I want. And that the residue will find its outlet to the world.

Sometimes the language will be determined by the variables – outlet, theme, respective publication, audience – but other times it will be chosen by the words themselves. That is the magic of writing, I guess. Or, maybe, the magic of writing is in that which never finds its way into words – the residue left somewhere between the brain and the fingertips, the one that is “always missing”, and which will always prompt one to keep writing in hope that she will manage to release it.

And, as for the subject I did want to write about today, I will let it rest for now until it finds its medium of expression. It will appear on this space, either in English, Greek, or Cypriot Greek… so do stay tuned.

In the meantime, I look forward to reading in the comments about your own experience – both as writers and readers – with words, language, the formation of thought, and expression .