Finding the Words

16 Apr

ID-10072080Recently I read Night by Elie Wiesel, the chilling true story of Wiesel and his family being taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald.  This event in our history is truly one that, in the words of Wiesel, “sprang from the darkest zone of man.”

Every time I read or hear an account of one of these survivors, I am left with a hollow feeling inside.  I mourn that human beings were treated in a way that shattered their understanding of God, their personhood, their relationships, and even their words.

Yes, words.

Wiesel describes in his Preface the responsibility he felt to give testimony to his experience, but that he found it difficult to put it into words.  This makes sense.  After all, how do you describe such heinous acts?  But, that’s not the extent of what Wiesel meant.  He writes of his struggle to record his story:

Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle. It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language. But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy?  Hunger – thirst – fear – transport – selection – fire – chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else. . . . All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless.  Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined, educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and weary old men came to die?

Language is supposed to free us to express our thoughts and feelings, our experiences. I have written on this blog about how the act of writing about pieces of my personal story has brought a deeper awareness and understanding of those experiences, and even provides comfort as I begin to see how things fit together.  For me, even in the midst of pain and struggle, language has been my ally.

But for Wiesel, language was a betrayer.  His experience called into question every foundation he thought he stood on.  If fact, “called into question” is too benign.  His experience deconstructed everything he believed to be true – even the intrinsic meaning of everyday words.  I can’t imagine.

As writers, we choose our words carefully.  I’ve been know to agonize over how to write something until I find just the right words to express what I intend to communicate.  If I stop to notice, I know that my word choice is certainly influenced by more than just the intrinsic meaning; the words I choose – and don’t choose – are also influenced by my experience.  But during the writing process, I typically don’t recognize this automatic sifting of language through the filter of my experience.  But, it happens.  It happens to me.  It happens to you.  But it didn’t happen for Wiesel.

And yet . . .

Wiesel fought to find the words to tell his story, without which, he says, “my life as a writer – or my life, period – would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”

Writing is always courageous.  But, what Wiesel did was life-changing . . . for him, and for us.

What can we, as fellow writers, learn from Wiesel’s experience with language?

  1. A richer awareness of the language we use, and why we use it.  The words and topics we choose tell us about ourselves.  I believe that knowing more about ourselves produces more authentic, and potentially life-changing (certainly for us, and often for our readers), writing.  And, really, isn’t change – of mind, of heart, of behavior – a primary desire of most writers?
  2. Greater sensitivity to how our words might be perceived.  How true it is that one’s interpretation of the words we write is intertwined with both intrinsic meaning and his or her experience.  Though we cannot control how others interpret our words, we are wise to clearly define particular words or topics that might invoke interpretation contrary to our intended meaning. Additionally, by seriously considering our readers’ various experiences and viewpoints,  we can anticipate how they might perceive our words and work to address those viewpoints in light of our own.
  3. The assurance that language is ultimately our ally.  Though it can betray us, language is still one of the greatest gifts given to human beings. Like us, language is adaptable.  And, like Wiesel, we can choose to wrestle with language in order to find the right words to express our thoughts, opinions, and creativity.  In this digital age that seems to promote reactive, and sometimes thoughtless, speech,  let’s re-commit to using this gift of language wisely.  Let’s use it to promote truth, understanding, and honesty.  Let’s commit to using words that encourage and edify, and that show respect for those who differ from us.  Let’s treat language like the unique gift that it is.

Still Living Still

21 Feb

Living Still CoverRecently I have been working with an author on another book project.  Engaging in the editorial process has brought back so many wonderful memories of my experience working with author Abby Lewis on her book Living Still.

As I have recounted several times on this blog, working on Living Still was life-changing for me both personally and professionally.  But perhaps what has been the most encouraging is to see the impact that it is still making on those who take the time to read and ponder it.

Every once in a while, I look at what people are saying about the book on Amazon, and I am humbled to have played a part in crafting Abby’s inspired message.

If you have not investigated Living Still, I hope that you will check out this book promo video that Abby created to capture the message of the book.

Enjoy!

Humor for Writers

28 Jan

I will admit it.

This list made me chuckle.  Enjoy!

1.  Avoid Alliteration. Always.

2.  Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

3.  Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)

4.  Employ the vernacular.

5.  Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

6.  Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.

7.  It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.

8.  Contractions aren’t necessary.

9.  Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

10. One should never generalize.

11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.

13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.

14. Profanity sucks.

15. Be more or less specific.

16. Understatement is always best.

17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

18. One word sentences? Eliminate.

19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

20. The passive voice is to be avoided.

21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

*Originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ Digest by Frank L. Visco

Frank, you make me laugh.

For Writing, For Life

4 Sep

ZWjoNzXcarNl_0The first evidences of fall are here, and I am reminded of how much I love this season.  For me, the fall is about refreshing beginnings . . .new routines, new (cooler!) weather, and new opportunities.

Though I welcome the summer each year with a sigh of relief from hectic school schedules, I must admit that “getting back into the routine” does my heart well.  And though I much prefer the heat to the cold, I remember that waking up to 60-degree weather is heavenly.  And though I need the quietness of soul that is found in familiar pursuits, I realize that I crave the excitement of new opportunities.

Well, I have been given a new opportunity.

This fall, I started teaching Business Communications, a writing intensive class for business majors, at College of the Ozarks.  It has been both terrifying and exhilarating . . . just the way I like it!  Already in the first couple of weeks, I have been both challenged and affirmed.  I’d say that’s a pretty good start.

In determining the best way to teach the “discipline of writing” (that’s the less scary way of saying “grammar and mechanics”), my thoughts raced first to giving my students some general thoughts to consider before we barreled into the tedium of my carefully prepared PowerPoint.

“Great writers have several common attributes . . . “

  • AwarenessWhat do I know?  What do I need to learn?
  • FocusWhat are the distractions in my life – physical, mental, or emotional?  What can I do to eliminate distractions?
  • IntentionalityWill I choose to take the next step or make the hard choice in order to improve?
  • Willingness to think criticallyAm I willing to slow down so that I can think objectively about the task in front of me?

We discussed how the students’ possession of each of these attributes would increase their ability to succeed not only at our task at hand – learning the “discipline of writing” – but also at “truly communicating,” which, I explained, only occurs when the receiver truly understands what the sender intended to communicate.

In other words, “true” communication – whether it is for the purpose of my class or in life – takes work and a slower pace.

So, if you are a writer, I encourage you to evaluate how deeply ingrained these attributes are in your practice and to make adjustments as necessary.  And, for the rest, I offer these attributes as food for thought, for I believe that embodying them allows us to experience life more fully.

I don’t know about you, but in this hectic age that tempts us at every turn NOT to practice these attributes, I need to be reminded of the simplicity and power of slowing down . . . in my writing, and in my life.

 

“Life Work”

26 Apr

Life-is-a-not-path-quoteI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the course my life has taken, specifically in the area of work.  And recently, I have come to appreciate the meticulously chartered course that I have walked, realizing with great joy that each step – even those that seemed insignificant at the time – has prepared me for what has followed.

It is humbling.  It is exciting.  And, in some ways, it challenges me.

This spring, several opportunities have presented themselves to me.  In no case did I search or strive for them – they just came to be.  Honestly, it has been a bit overwhelming (in the good sense of the word).  But, as I’ve taken the time to reflect on them – and the experiences that have prepared me for them – I realize that they may just be the logical next steps in my work.  In many ways, I can see that they might just be new opportunities to expand my reach.

I am so thankful.  That is truly the only proper response.  But, I also approach these new opportunities with an even greater sense of responsibility.

With expanded reach comes more exposure.  And with more exposure comes more people.  And with more people comes the reminder that, really, our work – whatever it is – is people-centered.  Our “life work” is an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people we reach.

Though it has been my current work circumstances that have inspired these “ponderings,” I am convinced that their implications translate into all aspects of life . . . am I living in an others’-centered way?

Do we make a positive difference in the lives of our spouses and children?  What about our friends?  What about the people around us who are hard to get along with?  What about the strangers we interact with in a store or restaurant?

I certainly do not have this figured out – not by a long shot.  But, I do want to be the kind of person – in my work and otherwise – who stays focused on the fact that the “business” we go about each day is simply the means by which we can make a real difference in the lives we touch.

I am thankful that this season of life has reminded me of just that.

In the News!

26 Jan

newsOne of the things I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to work on a variety of projects.  All of them involve some type of writing or editing (no kidding!). But for the past few months, I’ve gotten to come out from behind my computer screen and embrace a new role . . .

 

I have added “reporter” to my list to my list of “can dos.”

Yes, I have had the chance each month to interview some local high school students who are participating in a six-session leadership training program called the Legacy Youth Institute and then to write a news story about that month’s session.  I must admit that at first I was a bit uncomfortable with this role (the interviewing part of it, anyway).  I mean, there are so many things that could go wrong!!

Would I know the right questions to ask?  Would I be met with blank stares?  Would I be able to write fast enough to properly record what they said?  Would I, heaven forbid, misquote or misrepresent what they said?  That actually happened to me once in an unfortunate (read, I’ll never do it again) exit-poll interview, so I am super-sensitive to NOT doing that to someone else!

All valid concerns, but I am happy to report that I survived to tell about it . . . and, I actually came to enjoy it . . . and, I managed to write news stories that our local radio and newspapers found worthy to run.

And, I was reminded of  a valuable lesson . . . it is a good thing to stretch yourself, to try new things, to learn how to do new things . . . even if you feel uncomfortable and even if you aren’t sure you are going to master it.  For a “recovering perfectionist” like me, these are good things to know, and even more important to practice.

So, a big thanks to my client, Ozark Mountain Legacy, for giving the me opportunity to expand my professional horizons.  I trust that this experience will remind me to embrace new things that come my way in the future . . . I’ll keep you posted!

Check out a few of my news stories about the Legacy Youth Institute (and also about EarthWise Recycling Center!) – I am honored to have played just a small role in both of these awesome community initiatives:

Legacy Youth Institute Kick Off

Legacy Youth Institute – Session #2

Legacy Youth Institute – Session #3

Legacy Youth Institute – Session #4

Legacy Youth Institute – Session #5

EarthWise Recycling Center Grand Opening

Writing . . . It’s Good For You!

8 Oct

speechlessA couple of weeks ago, I had the awesome privilege of sharing a part of my story (my personal story, that is) at an event in my town.  When I was first approached about speaking at this event, I was left speechless . . . but not for the reasons that you might think.

For a lot of people, speaking in front of a crowd is about equal to asking them to poke their eyes out.  But for some reason, I am not afraid of public speaking.  I realize this might seem strange coming from a person who spends much of her day behind her computer screen instead of being “out amongst the people” (that one’s for you, Dad!).  But, it’s true.  Fear of public speaking was not the source of my speechlessness.

So, what was it?

I realized pretty quickly that my speechlessness stemmed from a nagging uncertainty about whether I was even “qualified” to speak on the topic.  I knew that I intellectually agreed with it, and that my way of life supported my beliefs on the subject.  But, I still wasn’t sure if my life story had enough substance (or enough exciting details!) to inspire an audience for 15 minutes.

I decided I needed to think about it and promised that I would let them know as soon as I could.  Well, wouldn’t you know that I could not stop thinking about it.  And, I don’t just mean “thinking about it” in general.  Oh no.  Even in the half-consciousness of sleep, my mind was formulating ideas, phrases, and even entire sentences of my as-of-yet-not-even-decided-if-I’m-going-to-give-it speech.  Events of the past fifteen years (both life-shaping and seemingly mundane) suddenly took on new meaning and had new purpose in light of my mind’s focus on the topic at hand.

I think I had my answer.  I decided to share my story.

I literally had to force myself to sit down and write my story (yes, even us writers sometimes have to make ourselves do the very thing we usually love to do).  I had made a few disjointed notes over the previous few days, but other than those, I was starting from scratch.  But, to my delight, the words started spilling out of me onto the screen.  Page 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . . 7.   And, the story I needed to tell that day was complete.

And then, I was really speechless.

You see, every detail I wrote about that day, I already knew.  But, what I didn’t know until I wrote it was how it all fit together.  And how it all fit together was what left me speechless.  The authenticity, the vulnerability, and the honesty that was required to write what I did did not leave me uncomfortable, fearful of rejection, or threatened to be misunderstood (though I could have been).

Rather, it left me thankful that I’d taken the time to write it down.  It left me energized.  It left me with a deeper sense of purpose.  It left me content with where the bumpy path of my life has taken me.  It left me hopeful.

So, I’ll encourage you again (remember this post!) to take the time to write out a part of your personal story.  You just might be surprised what you uncover!

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