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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.

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?
  • Intentionality – Will 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.


Story Writing Help!

19 Sep

Calling all short story writers!!

One of my clients recently recommended a book she found very helpful:

How true it is that sometimes authors have really unique, exciting ideas for a story to tell, but they just can’t seem to figure out how to successfully meddle through the writing process to get to the finished product.  If this is your issue, this book may be of help.

Happy Writing!

(Dirty) Little Secret

8 Feb

So, what is my dirty little secret?

Well, this probably won’t surprise you if you had a chance to read my last post.  The secret is that sometimes I need a little help . . . even a little help with the very thing that I seem to be (mostly) good at.  Yes, sometimes I need a little grammar help.  And, I’m not one bit ashamed of it!

Believe me, I’m not writing this post just to expose my short-comings (that, after all, could be career-suicide!).  I am writing this post to introduce you to a friend of mine . . .


This is “Grammar Girl,” the queen of “quick and dirty tips for better writing.”  She resides right here where she is always available to me . . . and to you!

The fact is that most of us find ourselves in a word quandary every now and then (I promise that you have been in one even if you don’t realize that you have been!).

So, the next time you can’t remember if you need to “compliment” or “complement” me for such a great tip, you can pay her a visit and find out!  I’ll be waiting 🙂