Judith Arnold: Thinking in Words
I still recall the day I ran into a classmate in college and asked her why she was beaming a megawatt smile. She told me she had just officially declared her major: mathematics. She said, “You know how, when you study a foreign language and you reach a certain level of proficiency, you start thinking in that language? Well, last night I was lying in bed and I realized I was thinking in math.”
Her description stayed with me. I had never before acknowledged the fact that I think in words.
When people ask me why I decided to become a writer, I have to shake my head and laugh. I never actually decided it. I always was a writer. I always thought in words. If an idea popped into my head, it arrived in sentences, in paragraphs. If I had to work through a problem, I analyzed it verbally inside my brain, arguments and counterarguments, evaluations in neatly arranged phrases. If a thought didn’t arrive in a well-crafted sentence, I mentally edited not the thought but the sentence. This is simply the way my mind works.
One of my good friends is a gloriously talented sculptor. She also paints and sketches, but she’s known for her work in bronze; her sculptures are on public display throughout the greater Boston area. One evening, she and I wandered through Boston’s North End, the city’s quaint Italian neighborhood. The North End is filled with brick buildings, new and old and even older. (The Old North Church where Paul Revere saw the lanterns signaling that the British were coming at the very start of the Revolutionary War still exists as an active church in the North End.) As Janice and I strolled along the narrow, winding streets, inhaling the aromas of garlic and oil and tomatoes emanating from all the Italian restaurants, she said, “When I look at these buildings, I’m just so taken by their texture, by the way the bricks ripple and stack, and the varied heights of the buildings.” I told her, “When I look at these buildings, I think there’s a story behind every window, and those stories start writing themselves in my head.”
She thinks in three-dimensional shapes. I think in words.
I often have to remind myself that most people don’t think in words. They think in sculpture, or math, or a foreign language they’re mastering. I assume musicians think in sound, and engineers think in structure. Perhaps athletes and generals think in strategy. My computer-scientist son probably thinks in code. Our minds absorb the world around us, and then process what we’ve taken in with whatever filters we’ve got. For me, nothing I see, hear, or feel makes sense unless I can put it into words.
Many years ago—not long after my college friend told me she’d declared herself a math major—I spent a summer living on a commune on Cape Breton Island. Our group was a motley collection of college kids and wastrels, older teenagers and twentysomethings, as well as a couple of dogs. We had no indoor plumbing or electricity, but our encampment abutted a fresh-water stream, and we built a cooking pit. We lived in tents on a bluff overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I had chosen to spend the summer there, writing my first novel—an impassioned allegory about government corruption, with trippy overtones. (You will never read it. I promise you.)
One afternoon, I was seated on the bluff with one of the other commune residents, Richard, who was majoring in psychology and had spent years in therapy. I considered him quite wise in the workings of the mind. “You know what your problem is?” he said abruptly.
I hadn’t known I had a problem. But again, this was Richard, who was so smart. “What’s my problem?”
“You can’t look at this flower—” he pointed to one of the delicate wild roses that grew along the bluff “—and just become one with it. You look at it and think, Pink. Stem. Leaves. Thorns. It’s all words to you.”
He was right. I couldn’t become one with the wild rose. The rose had to be translated into words for me to make sense of it.
I felt bad about this for about a half hour. Then I accepted it. I think in words. This is how my mind works. This is who I am. And this is why I write.
About the Author...
USA Today bestselling author Judith Arnold knew she wanted to be a writer by the time she was four. She loved making up stories (not exactly the same thing as lying) and enjoying the adventures of her fictional characters. With more than eight-five published novels to her name, she has been able to live her dream. Four of Judith's novels have received awards from RT Book Reviews Magazine (for Best Harlequin American Romance, Best Harlequin Superromance, Best Series Romance Novel and Best Contemporary Romance Novel) and she's a three-time finalist for Romance Writers of America's RITA Award. Her novel Love In Bloom's was named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly. A New York native, Judith lives in New England.