Ponder your words: How to wield the power of language

Carefully weigh your work (and its impact) before sending it out into the world.
By Gail Radley | Published: June 7, 2017


Ponder your words

 

“A word after a word after a word is power,” says novelist Margaret Atwood.

Part of that power is the power writing bestows upon its author – the power not only to reflect our emotions but to impact them.

But we usually want more from our writing than these internal benefits; we want our words to transform themselves into newspaper pieces, poems, magazine articles, novels – solid pieces of ourselves ready to greet an audience.

We hope that we have done our job well enough that our published words also have the power to touch others’ feelings, stir thoughts, fire up spirits. We don’t have to be “inspirational writers” to inspire our audiences, after all.

But it’s essential to ask: In what directions are we inspiring readers?

 

In the post-election/newly minted president drama, we have seen plenty of stirred thoughts and emotions. Roughly half the nation disagrees with the other half in significant ways.

Sure, it’s easy to jump on the pile and add to the clamor. It’s a more difficult and infinitely more important thing to be voices of reason and reconciliation, to bring some light to the darkness we find settling around us.

Therapeutic as it may feel to join in on the gnashing of teeth on either side, we, who understand and know how to wield the power of words, must be judicious about what we send out into the world.

What is our piece’s intention? What impact will it have on its audience? Will it inspire to constructive action or conspire to destruction?

As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, a central figure of the Bahá’í faith, put it, “Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.”

 

Hence, not everything that can be published, should be published.

Some writings are meant for our journals; some are warm-up rants or ramblings to ready us for the serious work. Only a segment of what we write is fit to greet an audience.

This is not about didacticism. Lectures disguised as fiction only irritate modern readers. A list of “do’s” and “don’ts” fails to inspire our higher selves.

This is also not about censorship. It’s about choices – and we all make them.

Recently, officials in a small Florida town constructed an ordinance against what we might call “ugly behavior” by civil employees – demeaning language, yelling, sharp criticism in front of others, and so on.

But when the ordinance came before the city commission, no one wanted to claim it, much less pass it. Rightfully so: We were born with the capacity to control our language, and it’s better for all if we do that of our own volition, not because we’re required to do so by law.

Similarly, writers need to carefully weigh their own work before sending their words out into the world. That’s not to say that we needn’t have the whole range of human possibilities at our disposal. The darkness, after all, makes the light shine more brightly. The disenchanted and disregarded need to voice their concerns – and we need to hear them.

 

In her essay “Art for the Sake of the Soul,” Maya Angelou stated that “actors and sculptors and painters and writers and poets…put starch in our backbones.”

They must, she says, “sing the song of struggle, the song of resistance, resistance to degradation, resistance to our humiliation,” and so on. There’s no shortage of bleak material there.

But she also insists that “We must replace fear and chauvinism, hate, timidity, and apathy…with courage, sensitivity, perseverance, and I even dare say, ‘love…’”

We can’t get where Angelou wants us to go without considering how we deal with dissenting views. It is all too easy to demonize the other side. But that makes for bad fiction with stereotypical characters, and it makes for unconvincing nonfiction.

Such pieces may be good for rallying the troops of the like-minded, but the far more difficult – and more critical – job is to open the minds of the unconvinced, and perhaps downright hostile. Such a piece examines its subject with complexity. It says something deeper and more valuable than a one-sided presentation can. It meets readers where they are and treats dissenters with respect.

Why else would they open their hearts and minds to our thoughts? When we invoke anger in our readers, they are more likely to dismiss what we’ve written, hardening their minds toward its message. It may take multiple steps to gain the goodwill and consideration of a tough audience, and it will certainly take discipline.

 

So where can a writer bent on changing hearts and minds turn for advice? Most of the major religions of the world weigh in this issue.

From Proverbs 15:1, we learn that, “A soft answer turneth away wrath; but grievous words stir up anger.”

Buddha, in his “Eightfold Path,” advises that “friendly and full of sympathy shall we remain, with heart full of love, and free from any hidden malice; and that person shall we penetrate with loving thoughts…freed from anger and hatred.”

From Hinduism’s “Laws of Manu:” “Let him not…[speak words] cutting [others] to the quick.”

In Surah 14, the Quran notes that, “A good word is like a good tree whose root is firm, and whose branches are in the sky; it gives its fruit at every season.”

And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá observes that, “The publication of high thoughts is the dynamic power in the arteries of life; it is the very soul of the world.”

 

Yes, what we write matters. We can – and should – expose the horrors of modern or past life, but shall we leave our readers in the pit of despair? Or do we build bridges across the divides and give them a vision of something better to work toward? Can we give them tools to work with?

In his wise book On Moral Fiction, John Gardner points out that we need only look at lasting fiction to realize that “art is moral.” Even more, that “great art celebrates life’s potential, offering a vision unmistakably and unsentimentally rooted in love.” It is no less true for much of nonfiction.

We will always have our differences, but perhaps we can be a part of building toward what Ludwig Tuman describes in Mirror of the Divine: “A new world order where love, unity, and justice are the reigning laws, where diversity is looked upon with delight and appreciation, and where differences of viewpoint not only coexist but even complement and reinforce one another.”

To do so, we must think of our writing as more than a self-serving expression of our thoughts and feelings; we must think of it as a service to humanity.

 

Gail Radley is the author of 24 books for young people and numerous articles for adults, including, most recently, “Writing to Heal” from the May 2017 issue of The Writer. Recently, she stepped away from teaching English full-time at Stetson University in order to devote more time to freelance writing and editing. She lives in DeLand, Florida.

 

 

 

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