ABOUT WORDS: ANOTHER KIND OF CHRISTMAS STORY

by Placerville Newswire / Dec 24, 2017 / comments

[Jon Hendrickson]

I don’t have any idea how many millions of words I’ve written during my day job, dispassionately chronicling the events giving rise to various disputes and how they eventually resolved and passed into dim memory.  Being couched in legal privileges, my writings had a very limited audience, usually only me most of the time.  I would like you to know that I have read some of the best literature ever written that no one will ever see, but I could be wrong about that.  One of the things I have found interesting is that, just as a statistically impossible 95% of all drivers consider themselves to be above-average, most people think they are the masters of their language.  I don’t believe I’m a better practitioner of the English language than anyone else with as much practice as I have, but I have a few things I would like to say about words.

WORDS LEFT UNSAID.  A while back, my ex-wife sent me a Facebook message.  It was a picture of us when we’d been married a few years, sitting in the side door of our ’73 VW Bus, smiling.  Among the words accompanying the picture, she said, “It brought to mind something I should have said a long time ago…”  We’ve been divorced for 20-some years and, even though we’re on friendly terms, it was still a surprise, a pleasant one.  I marveled at how young we both were.  I’ve long since gotten used to seeing a much older me in the mirror every morning.  And it was more than a little overwhelming.  “Words still fail me…” was about all I was able to offer in reply.  I felt like I had been given a hug and was frustrated by my fumbling inability to figure out how to give one back.  Maybe she’ll see this sometime and it’ll be just as good.

THIS PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS.  Why a thousand?  Why not two hundred fifty or so?  How much, exactly, is a thousand words worth?  Well, of course, these are pointless questions because the statement is a metaphor, which means it really isn’t what it looks like, but is a representation of an idea that would otherwise use up a lot more words to express and, even then, not make any more sense, just like this.  The individual words in the statement are expressions of single ideas.  So, just as a crystal takes the shape of its constituent atoms and molecules, the words in the metaphor affect its meaning.  As I see it, this perfectly describes how the nature of the words we use affect how we see the world.  It’s no coincidence that people with optimistic, positive attitudes about life in general use optimistic, positive words to describe their lives and where and how they live.

STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK MY BONES, BUT WORDS WILL NEVER HURT ME.  Pretty much everyone knows this isn’t true at all, and for reasons that they have all personally experienced.  In fact, this cynically ironic little adage may be the gateway drug to a whole ‘nother world in which words are twisted into language that bears no resemblance to reality.  This is the world in which politics, TV news, the editorial page and 79.42% of the internet reside.  Bones heal, but the thousand cuts of unkind, untrue, uninspired words may never heal even as we are oblivious to the insidious way they affect how we see and interact with the world.

YOU NEED TO READ THESE WORDS.  For some time, I have been diligently attempting to purge the word “need” entirely from my vocabulary.  It has become my personal “N” word.  It may be the most over-used word in the English language.  Almost the first thing I learned during the three or four times I took the first couple weeks of Economics 101 was the difference between “needs” and “wants.”  As I recall, a “need” is a deficiency of something essential to existence such as food, clothing and shelter.  A “want” is a deficiency of something desirable, but not essential, such as indoor plumbing, cell phone service and a Cadillac.  But in common parlance, the incessant “You need to…,” “I need you to…,” “What needs to happen is…,” has become a tiresome, trite and lazy habit of making demands which assume an urgency without offering evidence that such urgency actually exists.  This is the verbal equivalent of getting into your car in Fair Play and getting out of it in Placerville without having to endure any of the roads between them.  The invocation of “need” shuts off any duty to disclose or discuss a reason for the demand and, apparently, equally shuts off any intent to require a reason.  A demand of this nature should seem unreasonable, whether it really is or not, but is rarely questioned.  Need is a feature of poverty.  There are all kinds of poverty, but the worst, in my view, is poverty of spirit clothed in a mantle of victimness.  That’s why I get kind of peevish every time I hear the word “need.”  The language of poverty is not very uplifting or inspiring.  If we were all equal participants in these conversations, we would have the right and the duty to call B.S. on them.  Unfortunately, I hear it all too often in multiple chains of command, the bottom of all of which is me.  I would, frankly, prefer to spend my time with those people who have figured out that words do hurt more than sticks and stones, but still choose to use their thousand words to describe a better world than one filled with “need.”

ARE MY WORDS GOOD ENOUGH?  It’s probably not much of a coincidence that these thoughts have occurred to me near the end of the year.  November and December are the holiday months for most of us.  Time off and opportunities for indulging in various excesses come more frequently than any other time of the year.  It’s a more social time, too, when we gather with family and friends.  With judicious application of our preferred liquid social lubricants, we find we are actually enjoying ourselves and the company of others more than most other times of the year.  As cloying as I find the holiday music and trite the constant exhortations to be joyous and happy, I can’t not let my mood be buoyed by the language of the season.  

A local friend I’ll call Nancy, mainly because that’s her name, is an aspiring writer.  Some time ago, she asked me to read a story she wrote for a college English class and give her an “honest critique.”  Not wanting to admit to her that I really don’t have any qualifications to do such a thing, I accepted her assignment with some trepidation.  I had read horror stories by people who agreed to offer helpful criticism of someone else’s writing and the consensus was that it was an entirely unpleasant, unrewarding and bitter experience they would never repeat.  

It was a Christmas story.  It was also a class assignment in which Nancy was asked to demonstrate several specific skills, so it was necessarily constrained by the parameters of the assignment.  When Nancy gave me her piece at her place of work, I hastily read it to get the gist of the story before taking it home to peruse at length.  Before leaving, though, I asked Nancy if the story was autobiographical.  It was.  She spent a few minutes telling me about her story and how she tried to fit it into the assignment.  I spent a little time every day looking at the structure, syntax and technical details of the story before giving it back to her the next week with my notes and suggestions.  What I didn’t tell her, but should have, was that the story she told me in a few minutes, the way she told it, was more compelling than what she wrote and that’s how she should write it if she does so later for her own satisfaction rather than as an assignment.  She has a voice and a story to tell.  And her story has a happy ending.

And so, eventually, does this.  Rather than seeing myself having gotten stuck with an onerous, thankless task, I found myself enjoying the read and finding ways I thought the story could be improved.  I accepted the assignment thinking I was doing Nancy a favor, but after I finished my notes and gave her story back to her it occurred to me that I learned more about what I bring to the keyboard and what I do with it than I did about the mechanics of Nancy’s story.  

Words come hard for me until an idea which will bind them together starts to form. I rely on William Forrester’s advice to just write until the idea comes.  “Fake it ‘til you make it” really does work.  Words inspired this essay.  Not mine, but someone else’s.  It was really Nancy who was doing me the favor.  It was an early O. Henry kind of Merry Christmas!  And, Dear Reader, I wish something of the same for you!

Jon Hendrickson.