Say the Magic Words

I’m still not sure if I pursue writing or if it pursues me. Initially, there was no thought of mechanics or etymologies.  Between words written, spoken, or drawn with smoke, a secret, a tantalizing promise was implied that could unlock worlds, reveal hidden meanings, delight, harm, and bind or unbind. Symbols that convey our thoughts to others arise from a place inside us, and echo a bit of our culture and heritage. I wanted my words to find a home in other heads, to sound and taste familiar, to feel like home and a mosaic of places and feelings. To accomplish this, words that lay on the macadam hardness of the mind had to rise, pirouette, penetrate the soft sky matter of other minds, and dissolve on their tongues.

My fascination began with a curiosity about names. There was even an art behind it called onomancy, and a dysfunctional aspect—an onomatomaniac is unable to find the right word. To name is to know. I was named after a live and a dead relative. Did energy transfer to me via this naming? If so, how could I harness it? A name is often the first piece of information we get about a person, so I invented new names to fit the occasion. To name is to claim. I stole names of TV stars—exotic or infamous, to impress my young friends. This wasn’t difficult to get away with; my dad was an engineering consultant and we moved often. I adapted fanciful, romantic names to intrigue a few potential boyfriends. Luckily, through my many marriages, I kept the family surname. Are we hard wired to name and label, put complex thoughts into words, demand to understand the intrinsic quality of things? Only humans’ name (and dolphins apparently). Eventually, I realized we don’t truly awake until we stop naming and labeling, until we stop taking words for granted.

There are also words that are ineffable, taboo. I wanted to write about these words too. Words familiar, like the ancient Hebrew incantation Abracadabra, which translates to “I will create with words (something from nothing). In my childhood, the magic of fairy tales read aloud, the ingenuity of simple rhymes, and the lilt of Irish, Welsh, French, and English voices interpreting and accenting words in other languages sealed the deal. I delighted in catching a friend utter a malapropism or sniglet. There are nearly 7000 living languages worldwide—all I had to master was a mere 26 letters; 20 or so phonemes; five vowels; a dozen critical punctuation marks; 100 rules of grammar usage, composition, and form; nine number symbols and a zero; and a few stylistic devices of rhetoric, while avoiding clichés and awkward metaphors.

We’ve been communicating for 1.5 million years, and writing for more than eight thousand years. If I learned secrets of words spoken long ago, would my writing mesmerize, enchant, influence others? Was it just coincidence that before spelling and dictionaries—there were spells, magical spells, ‘gods-pels,’ and sacred names entrusted to mages? Or that the French word ‘gramaire,’ meaning learning via symbols, is linked to grimoire, grimace, and glamour. In medieval times, those who could read and write were thought to possess special power. Ancient Egyptians ate words of healing inked onto papyrus to absorb medical power, and a modern spell instructs one wishing to bind an enemy should write the name in red ink and freeze it. The simple words a child uses to summon a parent, or the sounds a lover moans in the throes of passion also convey power—may even unlock doors to other worlds.

I graduated with an MBA, attended a dozen workshops, read hundreds of author bios and writing guides. For decades, I earned a modest living writing and editing: government proposals, white papers, specifications; I also taught technical writing and business development to engineers and executives. Though I was enchanted with homonyms, puns, anagrams, and literary devices, few of these aids were permitted in the business world.  So I wrote creatively in spare moments, between rites and passages, and especially late at night, sometimes until dawn put out tomcat night and ignited the sky.

At workshops, people would ask what my voice was—to whom did I want or need to communicate. Did I have a gimmick, like using one word sentences for emphasis, or popular memes? I would reply we move in many loops—of family, friends, colleagues, strangers, officials—adapting the cadence of our speech—from familiar to formal, private, or public—to suit an audience. But once a thought is written, can we predict who will read our words? Should we write for a wide audience and let the reader choose, cross boundaries? Should we appeal to emotion or intellect, or both? I tend to reject conventional wisdom. In grade school, I refused to diagram sentences. It was akin to dissecting a beloved pet. I don’t always outline a story, and use modifiers as needed.  I suspect if I don’t assume I know an audience, use clear examples, and cite experiences we might have in common, my words will reach a wide audience. What I do know is my writing voice is my own—to refine, abuse, or tune to perfect pitch.

In my 30s, a desire grew to control words, their positions, size, and shape, and conjure vibrant images using only a few symbols. It was then I began to sense every letter, every word had a home somewhere, a place of origin—and represents one or more of the four primeval elements. Rather than control, I really wanted to release the right word at the right instant. I discovered some words leap through time, while others remain in a single place and moment. Writing is about making choices, about discovering and conveying an intent—to entertain, seduce, educate, or challenge a reader. It’s also about recognizing changes in communication, attention spans, hierarchy structures, and sensory overloads via TV, the Internet, and smart phones.

My style is always evolving; in an age of information overload, I embrace brevity and test new ways to freshly express compelling thoughts. I want words to speak, as in the suspiration of a sigh or the secretiveness of a secure password. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. Can I condense an anecdote to 50 words without detracting from its original intent? Should I use a simile to describe the awe I felt when I watched two rescued junk yard dogs comfort each other?  I often look to favorite authors, delighting in Henry Miller’s raw exuberance, and Willa Cather’s ability to evoke emotions and sense of place. I marvel over Tom Robbins’ insouciance and playfulness, and Flannery O’Connor’s mastery of regional dialects. I admire Pat Conroy’s passionate affair with geographical settings and complicated people, and Robert Pirsig’s, Maya Angelou’s, and Colin Wilson’s ability to master eons of topics, while making you feel part of their brilliant discourse. I want words to kick in like the last drop of a dry martini, a lover’s bone crushing embrace after a long absence, or a child’s infectious giggle.

I often wonder if I made my life complicated so I would have plenty to write about, or did adventures and missteps make me want to write to figure it out? As I approach my seventh decade of living, I am grateful to the younger me that kept diaries, scrapbooks, and early poems and short stories. These bits of writing are signposts and sigils, confirming my life has been and is brimming over with my words and with words not mine. I see detours I took, potholes I fell into, and forks in the road where I stumbled or was initiated into some new aspect of writing. Some of my most beloved books from childhood (Charlotte’s Web, The Cat in the Hat, A Christmas Memory, Riki Tikki Tavi) survived my globetrotting, and crayon embellishments by my daughter, nieces, and young friends. These books remind me of the importance of storytelling, of keeping it simple, and how a poignant memory can reach through time, summoning a longing for lost traditions, and exuberance for fruitcake.

It’s my turn to work for myself and apply what I’ve learned. It’s my turn to resurrect and finish poems, stories, and books that have been under development far too long. I have the raw stuff but do I have the right stuff to reach unknown audiences ravenous for words that enchant, seduce, delight, and nourish? Can I meld old and new, anticipate future directions, and re-imagine engaging words during a point in history when the media is abuzz about the decline of writing, reading, and corresponding? In the last 100 years, artists have turned words into mere decorations, while poets and writers broke every element of style and grammar. New genres were created, while others fell from fashion. In the 1990s, we entered portals, found trap doors, and went down virtual rabbit holes filled with words, images, links, and viruses. New fields emerged, like Semiotics and Noetics. We rapped, tweeted, lingo’ed, paraphrased, extrapolated, and emoted. Perhaps writing for contemporary audiences is like performing a clever magic trick. You must persuade readers to imagine what’s in your right and/or left brain, and produce a presto-chango, hocus pocus outcome.

As beings enamored by words we must be stewards and language guardians, and protest against politicians and the media using words as propaganda, help banish illiteracy, assure great writing remains available to everyone, and encourage and awaken others to the magic of writing. We also must be ruthless about the words we leave behind in the editing process.

All is still outside my window, bare and calm. Today stretches before me and I warm up by writing a few lines to my best friend. I mumble my mantra, in this sacred space, there’s no such thing as pages blank. My dogs are lazing at my feet, and I sense the presence of an impish Irish muse. There are 26 choices to make. I know what I want to say. I press the ‘M’ key and words crowd the page; the creative power of language reveals itself.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s