Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Writers' Spirit: Risk and return with language

Language has value. It has been the source of most things of value in my life, and I lean hard on it to help me make meaning and memories and to give something of value to the world.

Language is a vehicle that conveys meaning from a source to an audience. It’s part of a circulatory system; we send it out and we anticipate a response. Most of the pain I’ve known in my life has come from a breakdown of that circulatory system—that river. My “I love you” has been unreturned; my “Goodbye” served as a terminus for the flow; my inability to say “Goodbye” left me parched and wanting.

I have several defined roles in the world, outside of home and family, and these all have language as their core. I teach composition to college students. I do freelance writing and editing for all kinds of people, literary and otherwise. I blog, obviously. And I score standardized writing tests. 

I love language; it’s the most stalwart, constant thing in my life. And I get along with it. Most of the time, it pretty much does what I ask it to, and in return, I frequently set aside time to do what it tells me to do. Sometimes I just have to trust it, but when I do—when I’m wise—it comes bearing gifts. I can read what I’ve written and find surprises inside—beauty in its structures, meaning beneath its surface.

But I don’t think you have to love language for it to operate in this holy way—part mirror, part gazing globe, part oracle.

The fact is, we all lean on the sacred staff of language sometimes. We take a knee, a ring pinched between our fingers; we stand up to be counted or to testify. We sing or we pray or we ask for a raise. We breathe simple syllables toward a baby. We whisper goodbye into the whorls of an ear. 

Sometimes words are just what we need. We’ve all seen the struggle of a couple’s friend to offer the perfect wedding toast, or of a son or daughter who has one shot to sum up the life of a loved one in a eulogy. There are songs common to these occasions, and some are chosen for their words—their perfect words, it seems to the chooser. I know few people of a Christian faith who don’t respond on a cellular level to the lyrics of “Amazing Grace,” and that’s true for me, too, even though I have some deep theological issues with the song. (“Wretch?” Nah. Not me.)

I think of language as a means of exchange, almost exactly like money, an enduring poetic topic for me. Money holds steady unless we pass it along through investment or, to a lesser extent, through banking, which offers interest payments. We see ourselves as depleting money through spending it, but really, we get products or services we desire, and that’s just the money in a different form. The most useless thing we can do with money is keep it in our pocket, where it doesn’t work for us and it doesn’t grow.

Language is like that. We have to risk it for return—and writers take this risk all the time. But you don’t have to be a writer to understand risk and return. Put yourself in high school; just try to procure that prom date without language. You could avoid the risk, but that means staying home in your sweat pants on the big night. A proposal (or a response to it) is a function of language. So is an interview. These are the risks most of us come to know.

I always remind myself that being a writer—having an intimate relationship with language—gives me power that some just don’t have. I’m fortunate in that way, but I remind myself that all power is to be used with generosity and love. I’m not one to mock a misspelling on a menu, for instance, because I’m a terrible cook, and I take pleasure and relief from the fact that someone else has a handle on it. I know many writers who glory in others’ errors. I am not above a good laugh at a goof—spelling “tap” with two Ps, say—when the error goes hand in hand with a larger ugliness or evil. I don’t think this tendency speaks well of me, though. An intentionally or carelessly false accusation is an evil act; mockery of the spelling of the accusation is a wrong.

When I teach students, I have no trouble approaching language with love. Their best attempts aren’t always successful, but there is always success in them somewhere. It’s an honor to help them get insight into their words and find a better way to arrange them.

When I edit, I channel the writer and try to help the work to reflect the writer even better. Grammar and mechanics take a back seat to voice sometimes in a creative work, and when I correct these errors, I find a new way to say the words with the same personality shining through.

When I score standardized tests, I focus on rewarding the good instead of penalizing the bad. These, in fact, are the instructions under which I operate—one of the only kindnesses in the whole endeavor.

In the past week, I’ve witnessed a situation that has hurt a lot of people who love words as much as I do. The closure of a press has left several books abandoned before ever being published, and others orphaned with the prospect of being out of print at the end of the year. Everyone who was involved with the press on either side—writer or editor—is feeling real pain.

I wonder what words, if any, can help the wordsmiths? I think they need to be gentle, humble ones. Risk doesn’t always pay off, but there is much grace in the effort.

No comments:

Post a Comment