A fear of words.


“Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality.” – Edgar Allen Poe

Some people I work with

Send me emails

That are more like poems

And I wonder

When did we become so afraid

Of using language well?

I’m a terrible poet and the first to admit it. During my high school years I filled notebooks with terrible poetry (and I was trying to find myself at a religious school at the time so a few had a bit of a jesus bent). During my more rebellious uni years (yes, I was a bit of a late bloomer) I found the books and tore them up. As much as I wish that I had some earlier remnants of my own writing to look back and grow from, I’m glad that I don’t have that poetry. High school wasn’t a joyous place for me and I’ve no desire to hurtle back into the awkwardly earnest skin that I inhabited then.

I digress. The thing that I’m wondering today is when we stopped our love affair with language. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Martine Murray visited us at Faber earlier this week and talked about the dangers of being too writerly. But I’m not talking about language in a writerly sense, I’m talking about using words in our daily communications with the same sense of joy, decorum and even frivolity that they were once used.

Why don’t we write emails that look like poems?

How often now do sentences finish with ‘you know’ or ‘whatever’?

When did we stop trying to think of exactly the right word to express ourselves?

For me it was during those dreaded high school years. I felt this horrible shame at excelling at anything because I had always been teased for being smart. It’s hard to describe that kind of teasing. Often it’s not being bullied so much as the undercurrent of feeling that you’ve done something wrong. You’re called a know it all, a snob, a suck up, a show off, a nerd. Getting over it isn’t just about getting over the teasing, but overcoming the feeling that by using the things that you know – and in the case of language, using words that aren’t part of the everyday vocabulary of your peers – that you’re somehow doing something wrong. And all I wanted was to fit in.

So instead of using a myriad of beautiful words to describe myself and to try to define my reality I said I was sad. I rhymed it with bad and mad and boxed myself in with the simplest words I knew, the whole time raging because I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) express myself, or drain any of the emotion that I was feeling out with my language.

The current trend in fiction is to write ‘cleanly’ and to pare things back. It’s a struggle I have with my own writing. It starts clean. I know where I’m going. Then all of a sudden I’m standing in the middle of a swamp of lengthy descriptions and tangled plots and I’m not quite sure how I got there. More, I’m not quite sure how to get out.

The key I think is in words. Knowing them and not being afraid to use them. Reading books with big words, flowery words, sharp words and ploppy, messy nonsense words. Finding the one right word can express what a whole tangled paragraph cannot.

Now I find myself hungrily tearing into the pages of books – not just to let their story take me away, but to devour as many of the delicious words as I can. To feel their meaning and hoard them away for my own use later. I’m greedy for more. I pity the lonely teenager trying to fit in and wish that I could tell her to be greedier then so that I would know more now.

If anyone has words to share I would love to hear them.

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