Watching Birds

by James Somers, August 16, 2011

Something dangerous seems to happen when a person who likes to watch birds decides that they’re a birdwatcher. It’s the difference between doing something and doing some thing—where the latter has a structure to it, a stuffiness, that the former doesn’t. It’s the embrace of a complex of habits and equipment and dispositions and vocabulary, a kind of cancerous scaffold that threatens to swallow the building.

I worry about this mostly in the context of writing. I worry that someday—someday soon, maybe—I’ll start to think of myself as a writer, I’ll start to call myself a writer, and therefrom will not so much write as “write.” I’ll craft “pieces,” ply units of a branded trade, instead of trying to put thoughts into words.

There are concrete risks here. My style might get too much varnish on it. I might forget to be humble and curious. I might expect too much from an empty page (and start to fear it).

I hope like hell that doesn’t happen. I hope like hell I don’t birdwatch something that I ought to just do and live with, like the wise Paul R. Halmos:

As for writing—I write all the time, and I have done so as far back as I can remember. I write letters, from time to time I have kept diaries, and I write notes to myself, explicit ones with sentences, not just “try power series expansion” or “see Dunford-Schwartz for p > 1″. I think by writing. In college I wrote notes—that is, I transcribed abbreviations scribbled in class to legible and grammatical sentences. Later, when I started trying to prove theorems (the acceptably low-key phrase for the more stuffy-sounding “doing research”), I would keep writing, as if I were conducting a conversation between me and myself. “What happens if I restrict to the ergodic case? Well, let me see. I have already looked at what happens when S is ergodic, but the useful case is when both S and T are…” (page 8, I Want to Be a Mathematician)