Finding Your Words

I had many pet peeves when I was a writing teacher, and almost none of them came directly from the students themselves. They came, instead, from the students’ warped sense of what writing should look like, both in practice and in execution, and it still gets my knickers in a twist to think of them. Among the more disturbing habits I encountered was the compulsion to use words that students thought belonged in an essay but had never actually been uttered in their life experiences. For example, the word deinstitutionalization. Who wants to read that word, I ask you? Unless, of course, you’re doing a report on Boston’s homeless in the 1980s – otherwise, why? Just why?

In my estimation, great writing comes from that magical intersection of language and authentic human experience. It can be found in newspapers and novels and graffiti. Moreover, it can stem from anyone who has ever had an idea worth expressing. What really busts my buttons is when students – of any age, to be frank – say they ‘can’t’ write. It’s part of why I stopped teaching compositional writing, because it has such narrow expectations of the mind – and while it works for some, it most certainly is not a one-size-fits-all form of linguistic expression.

It took me a while to find my own words. I’ve been young for most of my life, and for most of my life I thought it was my business to sound young. I tried short sentences. I tried slang. I tried nearly everything I could to shut out those parts of my mind that used words that didn’t seem hip or urgent or sexy. But with the exception of the ability to swear like a sailor (which is every Bostonian’s birthright), I regularly use words like – well, let’s check above: uttered, knickers, and busts (I promise that was not contrived.) Some part of me seems never to have gotten over her past life as a Victorian spinster, and as unsexy as that is, it’s just me. I like elegant and lyrical words; I like big ideas; I regularly avoid small talk and then dive into deep philosophical questions peppered with stupid puns and offbeat humor because that’s just who I am. Slang and I don’t get along. And as if that’s not challenging enough in the modern world, I’m also, on the other hand, not a fan of diving deep into the language for esoteric words to trot out in an academic fervor. True confessions: I regularly have to look up words in the Douglas Preston and Lee Child Pendergast series because I stopped paying attention to developing my vocabulary in English class once the stories got really good. (My former English teachers are preemptively trying to enter their graves right now just so they can roll over in them.)

The point is, great writing comes from a passion for language, not necessarily a mastery of it, and language can take on as many personalities as it has speakers. It’s a crime to rob someone of their language, especially if that someone is you. So please, if you’ve been trying to pound your language into some narrow idea of what you think it needs to look like, loosen your lips a little and trust in your words. If you’re writing for approval, you’ll get very little of it anyway, and will probably just wind up tying yourself into knots. But if you write because you seek new ways to resonate with the world and some of the amazing people in it, you’ll have a lot more fun, and you might just find that unlocking what you have to say unlocks how you think and feel and see. Plus, it’s free. Isn’t that just a kicker? We have within ourselves the ability to grow and expand and express on our own terms. We have the ability to encourage our children to do the same. It sort of boggles the mind, doesn’t it? Imagine how many more voices might get into the world if we just learn to get out of their way.

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