Tales & images from life as me…

The write time – why words?


Why words?

To choose a career in words is not an easy option. I mean it’s not as though it’s a skill no one else has. We all have a vocabulary and can construct a sentence. In fact we each speak an average of 17,520 words every day to an average of 7.4 other individuals! Using words is not a skill that people value particularly, and they certainly don’t want to have to pay you for them!

But as my days have developed and this has become a full-time job – leaping from editing my book, writing a short story, coming up with PR angles for a client or working on my latest piece of journalism (ooh that reminds me, don’t forget to buy The Independent on Sunday the 21st!) – I have become increasingly sure that this is what I really love. I love words.

When I really write the words come almost through me, like I’m not really doing it. It’s a sort of letting go, or an immersing – a tea bag relaxing in warm water, releasing its flavour with no effort at all. And that is a magical feeling.

Of course it isn’t always like that. Often it’s a slog. Forcing yourself to face the page. Taming ideas to land softly, but sharply in the shape I wish to paint, gathering the shards of the world. But it turns out that writing is rather like using a pencil that, instead of getting worn down, is actually sharpened by use. The more I work with it, the more I feel the shapely shavings sliced neatly away to reveal the lean and pointed lead. You literally get to the point! In the end it becomes easier to write succinctly interesting sentences than flabby, stubby paragraphs.

But really it’s the words themselves I truly love, not necessarily the process of the writing.

I love the way they carry meanings in their history. Just yesterday I read that ‘Remorse, etymologically, is the action of being bitten again.’ The word carries the same root as the word ‘morsel’ with both French and Latin origins. How very igenius our language is.

I also love the way they can play with each other. I was listening to two teenagers not so long ago. The American child exclaimed ‘Sweet!’ in response to the chance of a swim, using the slang to express his pleasure at the prospect. The Tanzanian child responded ‘sawa’ (meaning ‘OK’). I had to smile – one says ‘sweet’ the other ‘sawa’ (pronounced sour) and the joke was just for me.

As a totally different example, I wrote the other day in my note book, in response to rejection of another article pitch (a significant part of the life of a writer is rejection and I am trying to toughen up!): ‘I must remember that they are called ‘slights’, because they are slight. I must not let them make me feel the same way.’ The layers of multiple meanings in words interact with each other, they are not there by mistake. Words have magic. Words have history. Words have power.

Words in a drawer are not contained. They seep out, float up, unbidden in your mind, attack the senses. They cannot just be put away or hidden. Once they are strung together into sentences they have combined to form the DNA of a living thing and that is part of the magic.

There is a theory that each word we learn carried with it the association of where you first heard it and every time you heard or used it from that moment. We build a personal history with that word and thus it carries meanings not only defined by a dictionary but defined also by our relationship with that word. If that is true of each and every word, what multitude of meanings might be hidden when you combine two words, or three ,or any of the average person’s 11,000 word vocabulary? It is mind blowing. And as a writer, trying to pin this down so everybody hears just what you wanted is a task that is both terrifying and thrilling, impossible and yet somehow worth attempting.

isn’t it wonderful that the combination of just a few words, even in the face of all that variation in possible meanings and interpretations, can still leave us with a feeling or image – like ‘The soft wing-beat of sadness’ or ‘the way that morning shadows stretch awake’.

Even as a child, at night when the world was dark and silent I would read in secret torchlight. Sounds were louder, shadows were shapes, and the air was full of dreams. How could I want to sleep? No, no. I wanted to imagine. I wanted to dissolve myself in other people’s words.

So here I am now, at my computer again on another sunny Monday morning, preparing to face my book again (the teenage readers have finished going through it and I am working on putting their suggested edits in place before facing the group of adult readers who have very kindly volunteered to help me get this right), preparing to write an article on Pemba, to pitch an editor about a local charity and write my grandmother a letter. But before I deal with each heap of words for each of those, first I’ll get this blog post live. An odd sort of post, I suppose, not quite in keeping with the usual tales, but it just happened to be what I felt like saying today! I hope you found a sentence or two you that sparked a thought or made you nod or smile or pause.

Have a great week.

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