Most of my life revolves around words. I have been fixated with words for years. I spend time researching word origins for fun, I write my own words, and I teach other people how to use words. It’s a good life – one that I enjoy most of the time.
I remember my first semester teaching. I had a student make an appointment to talk with me about her paper and the grade she got. I was apprehensive – I wasn’t sure what to expect really being my first class and everything. I knew she was a good student and I also knew her writing was falling short in some ways. She was assuming that the reader knew what she was trying to say.
So we sat under an old oak tree and she told me the classic line somewhere along the lines of why did I get this grade and I should have gotten an A. I gave her the chance to vent, to get out her frustrations which I suspected weren’t all from my class. And then I tired to tame the words in my head into a shape she would understand.
Basically, I said, you need to actually say what you’re thinking. You just told me you were thinking that Elisa Allen (from John Steinbeck’s The Chrysanthemums) felt trapped by the hills, the fog, and the fence that contain her flowers. In the paper, you just list those as parts of the setting of the story but don’t discuss how they relate back to her character. You need to put the words behind your thoughts and not assume your audience knows what you’re getting at.
I wasn’t sure in that moment if she understood what I was saying but she decided to rewrite and turn it back in. When she did, I saw marked improvement in her writing – she made her points clearly and I could understand what she was getting and and why. Her papers for the rest of the semester were all fleshed out like this and I could see where she was making the effort to put my words to work.
Variations of this conversation, in class and in one-on-one situations, colored the rest of my teaching. Only recently have I realized exactly how important that idea is not just in writing but every other aspect of life as well. Your partner, your mom, or your siblings, anyone else in your life that you love… none of them know what you’re thinking. Sometimes you just have to buck up and say it, as difficult as it might be to put words to the feelings. Don’t ever take for granted that the people around you know without you telling them.
And even so, when you are talking to each other, take the time to suss out what you’re actually saying as opposed to what you assume is being said. In the class I taught this spring, one of the concepts we constantly came back to is how we, as readers, impact what we read. You might think words are universal and indisputable but part of the power of words is the fact that meanings are often maleable, moving and shifting like the sun that breaks through the leaves on a summer’s day.
After my mom got sick, my brother and I started talking on the phone more often. I suppose this shouldn’t be news but since we didn’t grow up together we were never really close. He started telling me “Love ya, Sis” every time we ended a conversation. It’s amazing the impact those words can have. Yes, I have assumed that my brother loves me for most of my life, but finally hearing him say the words in such a blatant, honest display is more than a little overwhelming and it’s left me with more kindness in my heart than ever existed before.
Words take work. And risk. And it’s worth it in the end.