Words, Bless ’em

wordsUnder ordinary circumstances, I doubt most writers let a day go by without thinking of the value, the power, of words. But if you then immerse yourself in the world of The Real Thing – wow, it just hits you in the face almost every waking minute. And you become extra-sensitive to the way words have meanings sometimes not intended. Not a literal meaning, not the one in the mind of the speaker or writer, but the meaning placed on the words by the people exposed to them.

First, my take on TRT and words in a nutshell. Tom Stoppard is, of course, a master of words who chose to write a play about writer who also fancies himself a master of words (though evidently not one as successful as TS). Henry uses words to display his wit, his intellectual superiority over the people around him, friend and foe alike. At times he wields them as weapons. Other times, they begin to express the depth of his emotions, his doubts about himself and his beloved Annie. Stoppard, through Henry, talks about the power of words to change the world, or help us build memorials of concepts lovingly expressed that will live after their creators are long gone.

But as Henry lambastes the efforts of an uneducated Scots lad, Brodie, to explore in words the political crime that got him sent to prison, Henry says words are “innocent, neutral, precise,” and every time I hear that line I go “hmm.” On one level, I know what he means – the word is merely a sound with an idea behind it, and how the writer uses it determines its ultimate meaning. But at times, it’s the readers’ or listeners’ interpretation of a word, or words strung together to convey a complex set of ideas, that create their meaning. And perhaps one totally unintended.

I am not very philosophical when it comes to the writing process. Some of my writing conveys factual information. Some helps me release thoughts and emotions that are otherwise penned up inside my psyche and threaten to confuse or weaken me if I don’t release them and explore what they mean. And I know people can knock the corners off words, as Henry accuses Brodie of doing. I know I do some knocking on a daily basis. And at times my words can hurt; deliberately in some moments, totally unexpectedly at others.

I started thinking about all this after I was the recipient of some words that had unintended impacts. Last Friday, as I took my sister around the neighborhood near us that I’ve always enjoyed, she said a few times that she couldn’t believe I had to give all that up, she would love to live near such a neighborhood, etc. She was, I believe, expressing her own sheer pleasure at experiencing the sights and sounds of that vibrant little corner of Chicago. She was truly sorry over my  having to leave it. But all I heard, or felt when I processed the words, was the sense of having my face rubbed in something quite unpleasant and painfully indelible. Not her intent at all, but the weight I added to the words with my own perception of the impending move.

Later that day, I recounted those brief conversations with Samantha. She pointed out what I knew – my sister was not trying to make me feel bad. But Samantha then compounded the impact a few moments later, saying that after being in CT for more than two weeks, there was not one thing she missed about Chicago. She was being honest, and who can fault others for honesty, especially if they don’t think their words might carry some negative heft. But for me, hearing those words, I felt like she was dismissing, trivializing, everything I have come to love about this city and will miss so much and already mourn the loss of as the Crisis rolls on.

So words are precise? They can be. Neutral? Ah, I don’t know. I’m sure if I actually remembered something from my one Lit Crit class, or cared enough to do some research, I could blather on about semiotics and signifiers and signified and all that shit, or other theories of literature and communication. All I know is, we can try to be precise with words, choose them carefully, and think we will know their impact. We can write or speak the real thing, as we understand it. But we don’t know how others will respond to our words once they are set off on their journey. Whose real thing is ultimately expressed  as we try to communicate with those pesky, beautiful, infuriating words? Perhaps there is always more than one real thing in everything we say and do. And perhaps that was Stoppard’s point, what?


~ by mburgan on April 28, 2009.

13 Responses to “Words, Bless ’em”

  1. well i do have to comment on this…you knew I would didn’t ya…lets see..no not rubbing it in…having lived in G’bury all my life (2 years to go)..I would love to live some place that has Personality..well gbury does..think stuck up soccer moms…someplace where you can feel comfortable being yourself, someplace where there is stuff to do…without driving 2 hours to do it…I have been there what 4 times now..and there are still things I haven’t seen…how cool is watching the boats go down and the road go up to let them through…drinking a bottle of wine, needing more and being able to get it..on a Sunday after 8PM…priceless….

  2. Yes, all priceless. I cannot begin to say how much I will miss it all. Everything about going back to CT saddens me. And I still want to live overseas…

  3. well we will have to try to make it more fun for you

  4. Nice post. Love any discussion on the power of words. It’s so amazing how one little word/phrase/sentence can mean different things to different people.

  5. I don’t know it for a fact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you guys agreed upon CT because you have a built-in family and social network there. I think places are many times tied inextricably to the people you know there. F’rinstance, I tell myself quite often that I deeply love Boston. I could probably be forced to admit that in truth I like Boston quite a bit, I love my house, and I really love the people who I live near. If I didn’t have that network of friends in this location, would my affection for the city be as strong? I don’t know.

    Which is my way of saying that your ties through your playwriting might anchor you to Chicago in a way your wife doesn’t have.

    Where does the balance of city vs. people/activities lie for you?

  6. “you have a built-in family and social network there.”

    Right, but I would still stay in Chicago if I could. And yes, I’m sure the playwriting ties are part of the pull of being here, but even more so it’s just the urban lifestyle. It’s city/activities vs. people, and it’s not that the people don’t matter, but many of them I still will not see often in CT; lifestyle is an every-day thing. Having said that, I am not dreading the move as much as I did two months ago.

    Thanks for commenting.

  7. “I am not dreading the move as much as I did two months ago.”

    good to hear that…i commented on a comment that Samantha’s dad wrote, about things happening for a reason, and that we don’t know the reason at the time…sometimes we find out later.sometimes we don’t find out, but others do…does that make sense?

  8. Yeah it does, though the dreading waxes and wanes…I am really concerned about the housing situation, and the job hunt, and living off savings, but other than that, no worries…

  9. “I am really concerned about the housing situation, and the job hunt, and living off savings, but other than that, no worries…”

    silly, we all have those worries in these economic times

  10. hmm…seems I can’t delete or edit these things…..

  11. > but even more so it’s just the urban lifestyle.

    I can relate to that. We’re technically in a suburb of Boston, but the T is a 2 minute walk away and it’s only 20 minutes into the city. Not quite the same thing as living right downtown like I used to, but I’m really enjoying the extra space for the dogs.

    We used to be the epicenter for all our friends. Now we’re the southern frontier, and literally all of our friends have moved north or northeast of us. We still host a lot of the social events, but that has also slowed a bit as our peers have had kids.

    Wherever you guys settle, I hope it’s close enough to the city to give you the sort of urban feel you enjoy. Not that New Haven is Chicago, but there are some really fun sections there as well.

  12. If you’ll bear with me just a moment, a big story, made as tiny as I can for a blog comment box.

    Once upon a time, one thing led to another and I began sailing. I was offered an opportunity to sail from Hawaii to Alaska on board a 65 foot sailboat. There was one problem – I didn’t have enough vacation / personal time accrued to make the trip. Either I gave up the trip, or I quit my job.

    Being a reasonable sort, I quit my prestigious, relatively lucrative job, and sailed off. When I came back, I said, “Now what?” Since I loved boats, I started my own business, varnishing the wood on boats. Poor? Oh, gosh. I lived on savings for two years, nearly starved the third, and finally began to make a profit. I’ve built the business up over 20 years, and while I’m still basically paycheck-to-paycheck, I don’t have to dig in sofa cushions for change to buy gas any more.

    Suddenly, after 20 years, another “one thing” led to yet another, and I began writing. My first blog was a recipe for pecan pie. Sometimes I scrounged for words the way I used to scrounge for change in the sofa, but I always found something to get me by. Today, I have a few readers, have published a couple of things, and am determined to give up quite a bit (television, solitaire, shopping mall afternoons, most social life) in order to sail away again – this time on a sea of words.

    Your point – we don’t know how others will respond to our words once they are set off on their journey – reminds me that we, ourselves, don’t know how WE will respond when we set off on our journeys.

    But who wants to stay home all the time?

  13. Great story; thanks for posting. I especially love the last line. Yeah, this is quite the journey into uncharted waters, and I want to enjoy the ride. It’s a leap of faith that no matter where I land, I will be better for the traveling. I do believe that, even if travels and leaps and sailing on seas of words or otherwise leaves me a little scared shitless at times…

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