The Ship and The Shovel
By Bryan Sim
I am writing, but not writing: writing like the bee for its hive, like the rain for its ground, writing like the estuary for its sea. Among them there is always one hand reaching out, and always another grasping in return – a start and an end. Anyone can write, for all that is required is for one to delve into the dictionary and transcribe words to form a line — or not — in a manner that is aesthetic and pleasing to the eye, or ear, if one can read aloud. And I suppose that in itself is a manner of communication: that should we seek, in the arrangement of our words, to elicit a feeling or emotion — but it is not writing, for there, one stretches out one’s hand to grasp the hand of another, and grasps nothing.
That we should not only write in science, but write, is a statement that bears explaining. Many will have you believe that, in writing, the reader and writer are to dance in perfect harmony. That when I read, I should read to deduce, to decipher, to decode, to disentangle, or discombobulate my writer’s ideas, intentions, impressions, inclinations, or interpretations, so that together we might both partake in the passing of knowledge from one to another, and that this, in and of itself, has value — for among the many dances of the many animals in the Kingdom, the dance of language belongs only to us. To which I say that the other apes beg to differ, and that to simply draw lines on paper or articulate sounds with the expectation that others will imbue them with meaning is to embark on a drunkard’s fumbling search.
I know not why we fail to write, though I myself am guilty of prevaricating, equivocating, eschewing economy to surreptitiously confuse both my reader and myself. So that I might hide from the inadequacies of my own ideas, perhaps, or so that I might draw from my reader‘s imagination and preconceptions and not reveal my own. Perhaps I imagine in the minds of others an unfounded charity, a willingness to indulge, to perform the mental labor needed to inscribe my words with meaning.
I clarify: writers may do as they please, but scientists must write, for they have a vision, a mission, a goal. The words that reach the reader’s eye are but a means to the end – an end which may be reached in an aesthetically pleasing way, or not at all. And that end is: that one might read, but not think, and have the ideas manifest themselves in one’s head, as if they were one’s own. That one might think of nothing at all, but might simply understand the reason for the words on the page — and to this, aestheticism is subservient. In science, the aestheticism I speak of is of the color of a ship’s hull, the shape of a shovel, the fragrance of a sweet perfume. For the ship must sail, the shovel must dig, and the perfume must cut through all else that is visceral, and center the attention on ourselves. On our ideas.
[Inspired by Italo Calvino]
Bryan Sim completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at New York University before skipping town to work at a startup in Silicon Valley. He is currently a product manager at Owler.com, a business intelligence company. In his free time, he plays the guitar just badly enough to avoid becoming an accidental rock star.