Sunday, March 13, 2011

Word by Word

My favorite book about writing (and probably just about every other writer’s, too) is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  In it, she talks about everything important to writers, including how to build up your confidence and keep plugging away, even in the face of challenge, failure, and rejection. The title actually refers to a paper her brother was writing in school; the project seemed impossible, but the father advised his son just to tackle it bird by bird. The approach seems to work well with anything in life, which is why Lamott’s book is so popular even with non-writers.
            I’ve been writing for decades, but not until recently have I fully understood the power of words to harm or heal. I have often referred to myself as a  “wordsmith.” Sometimes, when helping someone else write, I’ve called myself a “word doctor.” Some writers take on ghostwriting jobs for people who are so afraid of words they literally quake with fear at the thought of writing--or who are simply so busy and important that they don't have the time to tell their own story.  “Writer’s block” is a common ailment among people who pen (or keyboard) for a living. Having “words” with someone isn’t a good sign; nor is (usually), “I’d like to have a word with you.” Words can embolden us (my best friend shares the tale of her son’s first encounter with bullies and the choice words @#!%**!! she taught him to use to defend himself); they may be ennobling (or ignoble). They can also make us laugh (maybe the Senate needs Al Franken, but his books are hilarious).
            Words can cause tears (for me, usually the worst flooding comes when unkind words are uttered by someone I care deeply about, but tears can also erupt if the check-out lady at the store snaps needlessly). Words of praise make us glow. In times of crisis (as in the tsunami and earthquake) we feel “at a loss” for words, and yet hearing “I’m sorry” or “I’m thinking of or praying for you” helps soothe pain.
            We all know how important words are when raising children; there’s no shortage of folks who’ve been messed up by parents who’ve said the wrong words at the wrong time. We all know that words—once voiced aloud—are impossible to erase, and may take years to forget.
             So what am I saying here? Simply that words are important. I may jest about what I do sometimes (after all, to make a buck I’ve been known to write about some pretty mundane topics) but the words that we write and say do impact others, sometimes in ways we could never even imagine. Thinking about words while writing this blog has made me realize two things: I really want to re-read some of the classics, and savor the word stew of the Brontes, Austin, even tackle Middlemarch and Portrait of a Lady again.
And I really want to remember, every time I open my mouth to speak or pick up my pen to write, that words do matter. Not just those who write for a living, but everyone has the power to choose words that will harm or words that will add to the stockpile of goodness, laughter, and light in the world.

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