Finding the Words
January 30, 2023 § 9 Comments
By Leslie Doyle
In eighth grade, our science teacher assigned the classic “drop an egg from the second floor without it breaking” assignment. I was pretty excited about this—I had ideas about Styrofoam or cushions or other large, bouncing materials. My father, a brilliant man who adored puzzles and math and read Scientific American religiously, suggested something else: Jell-O. I liked the weirdness of this and decided to give it a try. We prepared a batch of grape flavor—I can still see the wiggly purple chunks–and made a nest in a plastic food container. I gently placed an egg in the middle and piled in more Jell-O. Then he dropped the whole thing from a second floor window in a test run. I can still picture myself standing on the front sidewalk below the window, opening the translucent carton, and pulling the egg from its gloppy, violet packing. Intact.
In a recent New Yorker article, “How Should We Think About Our Different Styles of Thinking?,” Joshua Rothman recalls doing the egg drop challenge in school. His egg also stayed whole. He tells this story as part of an exploration of the ways we think—verbally, visually, something else entirely? Rothman describes himself as a non-visual thinker, but despite that, he was able to come up with an egg plan that worked. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot, partly because the way brains work has always fascinated me, but also in my identity as a writer, someone who pulls ideas out of my mind and turns them into words. And the ways I struggle to do that.
The topic of thinking in words or not has been popular lately. Countless Twitter threads convey amazement upon learning that some people “do not think in words,” the commentors agreeing that they internally narrate everything—”doesn’t everyone?!” I do think in words at times—mostly when I silently address a specific audience about something I want to explain, whether it’s someone I disagree with online, someone I know, or a totally made up listener, to help me clarify an idea. But I know that underneath, there’s thinking going on that has not been yet put into words. My real thinking.
Rothman discusses this. When he discovers a researcher who suggests that some people think in “unsymbolized thought,” he recognizes himself. And that resonates with me–that most of the time, my thoughts are wordless ideas, not sentences, not narration. Unsymbolized thoughts.
At the same time, I am also a visual thinker, and can recall small details of long-ago memories with granular detail. The colors of the tiled floor in the room I played in as a small child (gray background with a white, black, yellow and red splatter design), the pattern in the vinyl seats in our first car (small dark blue alternating isosceles trapezoids), the lobby of the grocery store where we shopped, including a large fountain in one corner with a huge, fake stone leaning against the wall, water trickling down the mottled gray slab, different colored lights illuminating its crevices, surrounded by a low wall on which I’d sit and watch the water pooling while I waited for my father, sharing some talk, and a drink, with whoever he found in the liquor store that connected to the supermarket. I can still draw the layout accurately, in case anyone needs it.
Towards the end of the piece, Rothman says, “[s]tories aren’t real, and yet they’re meaningful; we tell different stories about our minds, as we should, because our minds are different. The story I tell myself about my own thinking is useful to me.” I wrestle with my mind to find the story—I’m one of those people who often don’t speak up because it takes so long to get the thoughts in order, long after the conversation has moved on.
Here’s another thing about the day I made the egg contraption: that morning, the teacher announced that there were no second floor classrooms available to drop our eggs from. Instead, we went to a high hill far behind the school, and he had a couple boys from class heave each egg holder as hard as they could, because the hill sloped and he wanted them to reach the level ground below.
Well, physics took over. The eggs wrapped in cushion foam barely made it down to the bottom and remained unscathed. My elegant, compact little Jell-O contraption, small and heavy, sailed halfway to the school, landing with a thump many, many feet farther than any other entry.
My egg didn’t stand a chance.
I might have been a little angry with my father for talking me into this odd choice, but I was much angrier with the teacher for changing the rules mid-game. Dropped from a window, all the eggs would fall with the same force. Heaved by eighth grade boys showing off, mine hit with a different, lethal, momentum. I was angry; I knew I’d been cheated, but I didn’t know how to say it. So I said nothing.
I think about my brain because I want to figure things out. I think about words because I want to communicate, to share what I see, what I remember, and because I always, always, want to be able to speak out, even when it’s difficult, even when I’m holding a plastic box of Jell-O and a cracked, leaky egg, far from the bottom of the hill.
Leslie Doyle’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Fourth River, The Forge, Gigantic Sequins, Electric Literature, Rougerou (flash fiction contest first place), Tupelo Quarterly Review (BAE Notable), Propeller, The New York Times, Cutleaf, The Sunlight Press, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey, writing full-time after teaching college writing for many years.
[…] Finding the Words […]
Beautiful essay, Leslie. I, too, can’t formulate what I want to say until after the moment has passed. But I’m working on it.
Thanks, Karen. And yeah, it’s always a work in progress
Hi Leslie. Interesting essay, about many things. “Unsymbolized thoughts”–that has me thinking. And yes! your eight-grade self was cheated.
Thanks for the comment, Andrea! It has given me a lot to think about, too.
It was Temple Grandin who flipped the notion of humans not thinking till they had words to think with. (Yes, psychologists actually asserted that thought could not exist without words.) Grandin thinks only in images and has done just fine.
Hi! The article I reference in the essay discusses Temple Grandin quite a bit. Fascinating stuff; I need to read her books. Thanks for reading!
I recommend her.
What a great story. The best and worst of eighth grade science. Sorry about the egg.