Day 3: What person in your life helped you understand the importance of choosing words carefully? What would you say to them if you met them today?
I can’t think of one person in particular who taught me this in any direct way.
I had many great writing teachers, each of whom taught me something different, but all of them to value words and the meanings they express.
But there have been other kinds of teachers, in my personal life, who taught me things I didn’t necessarily want to know.
There have been one or two people who have, regrettably, taught me that your words can be distorted and used against you. Through them I learned how vital it is to be careful what you say, how you say it, and to whom you say it.
I would say to them that trust is an honor that should be earned, and words should be used to connect and clarify, not as weapons to be flung back at the one using them.
I have also known people who didn’t seem to understand the importance of just the right word, or of listening as a sign that you respect and value the person speaking.
As a writer, choosing the best words matters to me, but I also like to take a little extra time to really think about what I want to say when I’m speaking to someone.
Often I have had people react to this moment of thoughtfulness with either discomfort or impatience. They even try to guess at what I’m trying to say, as if I need their help.
And the further implications are that they know what I’ll say, that it isn’t surprising or special, and that my thoughts aren’t worth waiting a few extra seconds to hear expressed well.
Often they guessed wrong, and missed out on the chance to get to know me better and learn another perspective.
My answer to them: listen. You might learn something, even if it’s ‘only’ a new word, or some subtle aspect of who I am that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Don’t assume I’m so uninteresting that it doesn’t matter if I finish my sentence the way I mean to.
Don’t rush me, or anyone, by filling in an easy, predictable response so it can be your turn to talk again.
On the positive side, there was one therapist, and friend, who confirmed my sense, even when I was a very young woman, that words had power, and could cause damage if not used carefully.
Because I was observant, felt deeply, had strong opinions, and could use words effectively, I had a kind of power that we both knew I needed to use carefully.
At the time I knew my words could cause pain or harm, and so I needed to use them with restraint, like a quiver of sharp arrows, most of which you choose to keep in their sheath.
Later I realized words can also heal, connect, bridge gaps, teach what is valuable, fill in what is missing. There is something strengthening and life affirming about this sense of power, especially in situations when we might otherwise feel powerless.
Though I have sometimes failed to keep harmful words to myself, I now try to use the power of words for good, by choosing them carefully; by making them positive, respectful and helpful; by not saying what serves no purpose except to sting; and also by not holding back a good word that should be expressed.
So I will say to this ‘teacher,’ as well as to my younger self: thank you for making me aware of this power, so I could gradually learn how to use it well.