Ladies and Lords of the Language of Words

I remember when I was a young lad, the raw emotions surrounding the torment I received at the hand of bullies who, as well as with their fists, tortured me with their horrible words. Kids can be cruel and young adults even more so. I still feel the pain of this torment even as an adult. I would like to say I have put it behind me and to a large extent I have. But when I see a child at the school I work at suffering because of the careless words of classmates, I feel a kind of righteous indignation and I just have to set things right. If children cannot see the hurt their words cause, then it’s because they are young and inexperienced. But adults have no excuse.

When I experienced bullying at work, I was furious, but I was also helpless. Nobody likes to see an adult complain about name calling. But I can tell you that adults suffer every bit as much as children. The difference is, there are no teachers, parents or older kids to go to in times of trouble. You are largely on your own and people treat you with distance if you ever complain about the words people say to bring you down.

But as well as being a poison, words can also heal and help and a few choice words, offered at the right time, can be the difference between merely existing and enjoying life. It never ceases to amaze me the careless indifference some approach their use of words. Whilst calling someone weird or dodgy or strange or similar might seem relatively harmless, if enough people say the same thing to a person, it is often carried like a burden of shame and can have such a tremendous impact on a person that they feel helpless.

As an author I believe in the power of words to shape the lives of individuals. Words on their own are just words, but used in context with emotion, attitude and in the light of experience, these words can be a powerful weapon for change or war. There are some words so awful, so appalling, so utterly dehumanizing, we refrain from using them in any context. I cannot even use them as examples, such is their impact. Other words are rarely used only because they tend to offend. But there are troubling words that when carefully and thoughtfully crafted within a narrative they give a passage of writing great meaning and substance.

A story presents an author with a tremendous opportunity to explore the use of words and experiment with their arrangement to delineate meaning on a level other forms of writing simply cannot. It’s not merely the words on their own, or even in a sentence, that give meaning, but the way a reader interprets what is suggested, hinted or inferred in the writing. A reader will take those words to heart only if and when they feel an emotional and personal connection to the expression of those words. Otherwise the words are powerless. It is this personal connection that is the goal of the serious writer. In some cases it is as much about what you leave out as what you include.

The reader may have noticed I like to use a fair amount of dialogue in my writing, mixed with short descriptions designed to paint a scene that the characters find themselves in. The reader may also have noticed that there are certain things I leave out in order to tempt the reader to figure things out for themselves. I also use dreams in my story as a powerful device to help drive the story forward, giving hints of what might be happening in the mind of the individual, whilst helping the reader to put all the pieces together.

I sometimes compare writing and reading to interpreting dreams. In a dream the detail is scattered, seemingly unrelated, often nonsensical. Yet some dreams leave one feeling that there is something hidden, something unnatural or even supernatural behind them, like a force is guiding them to understand the deeper and broader context of their life outside the dream. I like to think that a good writer will craft their narrative rather like a dream, but less disjointed and with more purpose and direction. By crafting a story like a dream, an author encourages a reader to want to find out what it is all about. I’m not saying all writing, all the time, should be like a dream, but in a sense, that’s exactly what narrative is. Anyone who has had a bizarre dream and tried to explain it to others, might find they are telling it like a story, as if they too are hearing it for the first time. The difference between what a person feels in connection to their dream and how to explain it is like the difference between water and fire. When you do explain a dream it always seems somewhat the poor cousin to the real thing.

It is the words, or rather the way they are crafted, with careful consideration for a balance between superlatives and substance and logic that tell the story. Yet, it helps to sometimes include the bizarre, the extreme, the supernatural (or elements of) without the need to explain all of it in a story. It’s the images left in the mind of the reader which helps them understand. In this way an author is like a painter, only instead of colors, and varying strokes of a brush, a writer uses words of varying length and weight and color and language, carefully crafting an image in the reader’s mind by the way the words are used.

If I want a reader to connect with a character in the subject of bullying, for example, I will choose language which elicits an emotional reaction and empathy for the character on the receiving end. As a writer I rarely care about the emotional needs of the perpetrator and readers rarely forgive authors who try to convince them people who commit an evil act are worthy of any empathy. The only exception here is if I want the perpetrator to eventually come to see the harm they have done to the victim. So I paint my scene, describing it with enough detail so the reader understands the context, using words familiar to their experience. Then I fill that scene with characters who bounce off their environment and each other, mixing and then separating like the colors combining on canvas. Then I contrast each character making sure my words tell the reader who is dark and who is light, who is wrong and who is right. At times I add a little grey, so that some characters have a question mark over them that the reader needs to resolve.

An author has done an effective job with words when a reader reacts emotionally and spontaneously with tears, with horror, with surprise, with laughter and sometimes with anger. An author has done a tremendous job if those emotional connections continue long after the reader has put down the book. If the reader has connected with a character to such an extent that they feel an unshakable bond, then my work is half way done. Then, if the reader sides and empathizes with that character, my job is almost complete. Finally, when the reader wants nothing but a satisfying resolution where the victim becomes the victor and the perpetrator is punished, fails or at least is exposed to all for their deeds, my work is complete.

Of course, this isn’t always true. Some stories don’t have a resolution, but rather a question which hangs like an unresolved painting, leaving the reader to fill in the blank spaces with color and shading of their own.

In the end though, words are really just a carefully arranged series of letters which on their own have no meaning at all, but together, placed in the right order and in the context of the meaning of other words they are partnered with, those words can have a powerful impact on the heart and mind of an individual. When an author receives feedback from a reader who has enthusiastically embraced the story, the characters and the meaning, only then can they know they have been successful in crafting their story. Only then can they know their words have power. But it is a power for good and in the right hands those words on the page have through history been proven to shape cultures, change minds, direct the outcome of wars, as well as influence Kings and Queens.

If a writer has this much influence, they are more than a purveyor of meaning, they have a rare gift and one which presents a unique opportunity to influence history. No, they are more than writers, more than craftsmen and women of words. They are Knights of narrative, Princes and princesses of prose. They are, the Ladies and Lords of the Language of Words.

Paul G Day

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8 thoughts on “Ladies and Lords of the Language of Words

  1. “readers rarely forgive authors who try to convince them people who commit an evil act are worthy of any empathy” — Really? I thought it was all the rage these days to tell authors to ‘make sure you show that the villain thinks of himself as a good person, too — a villain is just a misunderstood protagonist, after all.’

    Personally, I HATE that view of things. I don’t CARE if the person doing horrible things sees him/herself as a ‘good person’ or is ‘just misunderstood’ — that doesn’t change the fact that they’re doing horrible things, and I don’t want to feel any empathy for/identify with someone like that.

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  2. Great post. I write in my latest book, ” Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” is a fallacy. An old saying as a defense to try and make the hurter think we don’t care. My book, Words We Carry delves back into my childhood where such hurts stem from and linger with us throughout our lives.

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  3. Powerful words, Paul, that touch one’s heart. I feel for your pain. When someone’s words hurt so deep they stay there until you let them go. You must let yourself be free of their torment. Taking time each day to meditate or just sit quietly until you feel at peace. Take care my friend.

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