As a writer, I traffic in words. I push and prod them, package them as essays, novels, or blogs, and occasionally I sell them. Profit motives aside, however, I maintain an abiding belief in the hidden power of words.
There was a time when words played tricks on me. These linguistic expressions, after all, require a voice, and through much of my childhood my voice eluded me, eclipsed by the words of others.
This was hardly uncommon. We all must absorb the voices of parents, teachers, and playmates before we learn to develop our own. But dislocation and difference seemed to conspire to keep me silent.
My earliest memories date to India, where my family lived as American expatriates for several years. Moving back to suburban Connecticut a month into the fall semester, I became acutely aware that I was the only child in my grade school of Asian descent or experience. And in my new neighborhood I was the only child, period.
I responded by pledging allegiance “to the flag of India” under my breath. I acted older than my years by lifting my chin and holding my tongue. Then my school’s speech therapist informed me I’d need to correct that lisp I’d developed between continents.
Although I’d known how to read in India, I somehow earned my gold star in American reading next to last in my class. Words, I learned, had the power to bewilder, betray, and humiliate me, and so I mistrusted them.
But Anne Frank and the diary that she prompted me to begin keeping in fifth grade proved that words also had the power to reveal my self. I wrote about a snail I’d once encountered in the dust of Delhi, about the woods where I now played alone. I wrote out the arcane rules of popularity that dominated the schoolyard and how I escaped them through books like Death Be Not Proud and Profiles in Courage, books that disturbed and inspired my young mind every bit as much as Anne Frank had. I wrote of the soothing of the tides and full moons over Long Island Sound near my home.
Something magical happened in the interval between writing and reading a line of words; it was as if I became someone new, someone freed of a burden yet strong enough to bear it. In that magic interval, I discovered what I thought. That discovery proved addictive.
Once in my forties, long after I had directed my voice into a writing career, I confessed to a writer friend that, “I’m always afraid no one will be interested in what I have to say.”
This former classmate used to stuff our school literary magazine with his own profuse prose. Now he laughed in my face. “Boy, are you in the wrong business!”
But my friend mistook my point. I don’t write only to interest others. First and foremost, I write in order to learn what I believe.
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