I believe in finding the right word, the best word, whether I’m crafting a story, a poem, a letter, or a conversation. I’m a writer, so I’m very conscious of how I, and everyone around me, use words. I have a habit of using four or five metaphors to describe something, because I find it impossible to choose just one. If I send an email, then realize I could have expressed myself better, I’ll write another one with a ‘please disregard previous email’ in the subject line. I’ve been known to interrupt someone and ask if I can steal the phrase they just used. Though startled by the question, most generously agree. I say most because if I’m speaking with another writer, it’s more of a struggle.
I’m also a teacher of creative writing, and each session, start my students off on a quest for verbs. As verbs are the engines driving sentences, changing a verb can change the energy of whatever you’re writing. My challenge sends them to the dictionary and the thesaurus, the greatest treasure chests in the world, and it always pays off. Within a week they’re using stippled, withered, vaulted. This new relationship to verbs affects their choice of nouns and adjectives as well. We’re all benefiting from this exercise, as is anyone reading their work.
One of my greatest influences is Emily Dickinson, who extracts the very marrow of meaning from words. Dickinson’s now famous quote: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” has always resonated with me because I think words do have that power, and are the result of a kind of alchemy. They are verbal tools that express images, feelings, and concepts, all of which come from a non-verbal place of silence. They exchange one realm for another, as if transubstantiation takes place between the mind and the mouth or hand. That’s magic.
Because we use language everyday to argue and complain, as well as praise, comfort, and sing, I try to be vigilant, and keep in mind that words are not just a means of ordering pizza or answering the phone. I try not to forget their beauty. That they have sound, texture and dimension, that they access memory and dreams; that they bring life to life. Taking the extra moment to find the right word means I’m more aware of the moment itself; my experience and understanding of it are deepened. If you’re listening to, or reading, my words, you’re more aware too.
There’s a section of road in downtown Baltimore that’s embedded with glass. Whether driving or walking over it, I can’t help but notice the jewel-like radiance of red, blue, and green, and how the colors glow or sparkle depending on the light. Words are like that glass. Language is like that road. We travel along it every day. I believe my section of it should shine.
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