The Power of Words

(You can listen to the audio version here.)

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to present a keynote on the Power of Words at the Western New York Word Weavers Weekend Conference. It was one of the highlights of my career to attend, teach and speak.

As I thought about this topic, The Power of Words, my natural inclination was to go back through my notes or talks and workshops and rehash some things that I have already taught, I thought about looking for particularly snappy passages from literature, to find wisdom in someone else’s words, wisdom and ideas that I believed as well. But as I did this I became more and more uneasy and threw out my new notes, tore pages off my yellow legal pad like they were Autumn leaves and let them rest on the floor until I had so many discarded pages I almost felt I couldn’t do this.

But then in a flash I decided to not talk about the power of words in the same old way.

We all know this. We all know that words can heal or harm or instruct or entertain and make us laugh. No one will dispute that, and I didn’t think it would be telling you anything you didn’t already know.

So in keeping with what we began last night as I shared my personal writing journey and some thoughts on what it means to become a writer I thought it more appropriate to share with you what the power of words in my life

. . .  was . . .  is  . . . and will be because as  writers we all understand that the one common aim of our writings is to say something that will resonate with others, that our stories will matter in what Carl Jung called the collective consciousness, or the Greater Narrative. That we have something to say.

And I would suggest that this is true not just for the writer but is apropos for all our gifts. Don’t we all want to touch life in some far-reaching way, to leave some small legacy, to change, perhaps, a person going in the wrong direction. Think of your children and the power of your words.  

By the time I was three years old I was totally and irrevocably wordstruck. Smitten as it were by words and what they could do. I remember sitting on the floor or at the kitchen table reading the back of my father’s newspaper. Somehow I knew that those little black marks on grayish paper had sound and meaning.

As I got just a little bit older I noticed that words were everywhere.  I particularly enjoyed reading cereal boxes. I liked to read road signs as we drove past them in my father’s car. My favorite sign was YIELD because I thought it was a funny word.

There was one sign in particular that confused me. It read: No Thoroughfare. My mother helped me pronounce it but didn’t explain it to me. The only thing Thorough I knew was a thoroughbred horse and so I thought the sign meant that we couldn’t take our horses down that road.

Words had the power to confuse and amuse me. No one I knew had a horse and so I thought the sign must have been some throw back to an earlier time, something historical, or maybe it was there just in case someone tried to ride their horse down the street.

Even at that young age I was concocting stories to help explain something I didn’t understand. This is the power of words.

And so I grew taller and a little older and went to school where I was told to read and given books, one after the other that I could take home and sit under the basement steps and read to my heart’s content yet my heart never was content. I wanted more.

I couldn’t name it then, but words had the power to hide me, to transport me from the one place I didn’t want to be—home.

My favorite day in the school year was Scholastic book day. When the books we ordered from those wonderful and colorful book order forms arrived. Back when we could purchase a stack of books, nine or ten for like a dollar or something. It was Christmas for me. I would race home with my books and hide and read, or read and hide from the dangers that lurked around me.

The problem was I thought I was unusual, a freak because here I was lost in books most of the time, bringing them to the dinner table which I’m sure we’ve all been told at one time or another was forbidden, no reading at the dinner table. I thought this was a major atrocity. Books should have been welcomed everywhere. At least back then that was what I thought. I have told my own children not bring books to supper.

Although, I will say that when I finally put it together that books were written by people I was a little disappointed. I wished they had sprung up like blades of grass, or appeared like peaches on a tree. But I can remember looking at the names on the book covers and lightly touching them with my fingertips and wishing a little of the author would seep into me.

It might just be me but I think something of this pleasure has been lost to children because of things like the internet and E-Books. The world is becoming so small when we can tap a few keys and be transported to the home of our favorite authors or read about them living their ordinary lives. I’m afraid I would have been sorely disappointed if I had that ability when I was nine or ten or eleven to be transported to Lucy Maude Montgomery’s home and see her sitting at her desk with a cat and sipping tea as she wrote Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. I wanted authors and their words to remain shrouded and secret.

Writers and where they found their words were a mystery and that was a good thing. Unfortunately we have grown uncomfortable with mystery.


And then I was assigned to Mrs. Nichols’ third grade and I already shared the Martian story with you and how that was the day I believe my gift was anchored to my spirit.

But there was more. She continued for many years to nurture my love for words and taught me things about them that I believed no one else was learning. She introduced me to not only Mrs. Piggle Wiggle but also authors like Jack London and Ray Bradbury. I read Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury and thought they were the best words on earth. A relatively new novel at the time, it didn’t matter why a story about two fourteen-year-old boys, a traveling carnival and a lightning rod salesman set in a reality light years from my own, spoke to me. What mattered was it did.

Now I admit I had to go back and look this quote up. It’s been a few years since I’ve read it. But listen to these words from Something Wicked This Way Comes.

“He knew what the wind was doing to them, where it was taking them, to all the secret places that were never so secret again in life.”

Perhaps at age eleven or twelve I didn’t quite grasp the metaphor but I think somewhere in my subconscious brain I knew this was a story about growing up and leaving the childish things behind. These words instructed me. These words made me feel less of an outsider.

Somewhere along the line I discovered an amazing place called the library, THE FREE LIBRARY OF PHILADELPHIA where I would later spend much of my days, particularly my teenage days, safe with a trillion words scattered across a million books, hidden away from what I knew were the dangers of growing up.

I knew, perhaps from reading so much, the dangers of adolescence, of lightning rod salesmen and Catchers in the Rye and what it meant to have a Separate Peace and that it was true No One Promised Me a Rose Garden, but it was okay to be Harriet the Spy and long to become Anne of Green Gables, to entertain the notion  and horror of Dracula, and find myself traveling with a rag tag band of Hobbits to Mordor, I understood why The Caged Bird Sings, I chased my own White Whale, and tumbled down a rabbit hole and because there was no one to help me navigate the turbulent waters of adolescence, I turned to books for answers, I turned to books to explain. I found Anna Karenina and read, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And there it was, the power of words to affirm me, to inform me that I was not alone. Dysfunctional families existed even in 19th century Russia a half a world away from me, from my little spot in the library. Dysfunction existed, I discovered, even before Jesus was born.

The Bible became more than something I reluctantly carried to church on Sunday, something more than a Sword we held in the air and waited until someone called a verse and then went digging to be the first to find it. The Bible became literature, a place of story, wars and battles for not only land but body, spirit  and mind.
The Bible had much to say to me about the Power of Words, not only the words we write but those we speak, and even the words we don’t speak. Words I learned could destroy, break, or build and even change an entire nation.

The Atomic Bomb had the power to kill, the power to annihilate entire cities and all the people in it, the babies, the elders, the young men and women their dogs and chickens, their vegetable gardens and sky but what good is that? Should that be the goal of power? To leave unspeakable destruction when words can change a life. When words can bring about salvation and redemption, healing and peace, tolerance, understanding and community a future.

While everything around me was broken, I wanted my words to build and if Mrs. Nichols was correct, this was my calling and I would no matter what, remain true. The thing is, when God gives a gift he doesn’t take it back. For me it was a gift of words and at times the only truth I could hang on to. Words were like tiny life rafts that carried me through many turbulent seas.

PART TWO Tomorrow.

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