Tag Archives: language

Why Language Is Your Only True Power

“One must avoid ambition in order to write. Otherwise something else is the goal: some kind of power beyond the power of language. And the power of language, it seems to me, is the only kind of power a writer is entitled to.”  – Cynthia Ozick

Avoid ambition? Is that even possible? It’s always seemed to me it takes a serious ego to write a book you believe people should read.  But Ozick seems to be saying that ambition can usurp the primary power of language. Ambition for anything other than a love of words can skew the work.

I heard of a famous author who was asked by an acolyte if he thought he had what it took to be a writer. The author sized him up and finally asked, “I don’t know. Do you love words?”

I’m attracted to the purity of that question. It seems so perfect and fitting that the goal of writing should be a love of using the power of language and language alone–not kowtowing to the usual dreams of fame and fortune and validation, or proving something to your friends or family, fulfilling the expectations, following trends or promoting ideals (pause on that thought, dear Christian), or anything else that might get in the way of the beauty of the pure inspired word. Yes, all is vanity. And to wield language like a scythe through the fields of men’s minds, to clear a path for logic and fresh imagination, and to harvest the untapped bounty that lies dormant within… Yes, language alone–the almighty word–can inspire the delight that leads men to shift course, change direction and commit to the path their lives were intended to go.

This, indeed, seems to me the true ultimate goal.

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Yet avoiding ambition, is it possible to love words, love language in such a pure, undiluted way?

Maybe the issue is simpler than it seems. Maybe, as usual, it’s one of digging for that deeper appreciation….

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There is such a wide variety of plant life and foliage in the pacific northwest, it can be difficult to realize how miraculous it is that individual species can grow and thrive among such diverse friends and foes. All are competing for the same space, the same water, same dappled sunlight through the high ancient trees. And yet, still, somehow, they spout, take root and grow, strong and luxurious, regardless.

Trillium. Lupine. Hellebore. Dogwood. Columbine. Over 220 native flowering plants alone. Springtime in Oregon is a cacophony. And yet amongst the seemingly endless varieties, certain fragile, needy plants find the proper conditions to prosper and even profligate.

Do you see a connection to our frangible goal — writing for the pure love of language?

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How easily crowded out could it have been? How delicate its roots and dependent its gossamer leaves. And yet somehow, this initial love finds the water, the sunlight it needs. That magical awakening of language holds the imagination captive still, the first inklings of meaning breaking through the dark wilderness of our young minds. The understanding blossoming across our fertile, hungry ground, waiting to absorb more of this mysterious symbology of shapes on a page or formed with the lips, somehow connected and representing the ideas and objects and loved ones themselves.

Mama. Dada. Ball. Book….

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The words spread and fertilized the willing earth inside and cultivated our gardens, defining and laying claim to the seeming infinite capacity, soon filling and interweaving and overwhelming anyone’s ability to trace where a word came from and where a definition attached itself, much less where language had begun to form us until we’d become these constructs of indefinite impressions and tender meanings, pliable to environmental forces and yet continually adapting according to our needs.

Too long it’s gone unacknowledged how much we owe to language for forming who we’ve become. Let it not remain unnoticed how much language continues to form who we are still becoming.

Balanced between the permeable and the permanent, the soft and the hardened, our awareness of our only power as writers remains our greatest source of ambition and delight. It isn’t in showy or dense and difficult language, but in the original elation and discovery of that elemental connection between sound and sight, symbol and meaning. What could be more elegant than language, expressed from the mind, through body, and entering spirit? What else but language can blend and balance all of ourselves and states in such a fundamental way?

Let your appreciation of words grow into the garden it’s destined to become. And let your speaking as well as your listening and understanding be formed by the love and comfort of this ethereal power to paint meaning in men’s minds with a simple alphabet, your paltry handful of seeds….

For the higher purpose,

Mick

Why Language Matters

 “Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.” 
– Rita Mae Brown

Writing is editing. You know that. You accept that.

But do you love it?forest path I’m serious. It’s easy to love writing, even when you don’t. But editing? Who loves that?   

And yet, if you plan to continue your career as a writer, it may be time to learn.

When people ask me about editing as a career, I often ask them this question: Do you like language? I think the editor is someone who has made that transition from appreciating language as a spectator, to not only enjoying it as a player, but now engaging the grand game of words as a coach, a manager, or even a referee.

Editing isn’t merely about grammar rules and knowing the parts of speech. It isn’t just how best to arrange the words for maximum impact. It’s all of those things, but it also involves a deeper understanding of human nature, the subtle preferences of readers and especially the particular interests and needs of the specific audience one is speaking to. Anyone can spout off rules about verb tense agreement or dangling modifiers, but the more advanced skill is knowing why these things matter–and why and when they don’t.

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“Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual.”
– Steven Pinker

Last week, I talked about how to overcome knee-jerk reactions to strong language as a way to employ words more powerfully. My firm conviction is that wielding language is a power–quite literally–and possibly, the greatest power we writers have. And as such, I believe we’ve got to start learning to risk speaking dangerously to reclaim and renew our listeners’ understanding of language. Frankly, even a cursory look around proves there’s no time for skirting this issue any longer.

So this week, I want to go straight to an idea that the invisible work of editing is arranging words to reveal readers to themselves.

A polished sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book conveys a clear message, an intentional revelation. And the way to having that effect is a proper edit which carves out truth, truth that heals readers’ misconceptions—about the world, themselves, God and others.

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Too many people, and I believe Christians especially, either don’t understand or don’t believe that. And I don’t know why. (My basic theory is that some folks think only God’s “original revelation” is the unaltered truth, and therefore editing is unnecessary and/or damaging. Can’t God inspire an idea and also grow and inspire us further through the editing process?)It’s true. Editing isn’t always easy—in fact, it rarely is. But how else do you expect to help others find themselves in a story so new yet so familiar, and experience that though somehow they forgot, they’ve always known this incredible revealed truth?
There is a language so pure it knows your very mind–it just is so rarely mastered.
Yes, if you are called to write, you are a lover of words. Yes, it is possible for you to seek and find this mastery of language. You know great books are not simply written. They’re rewritten. They’re edited. And edited again.
Like counselors, good editors use questions to guide the initial process. And then like surgeons, they find the phrases that bring out the best qualities and efficiently solve the confusion and dullness that plagues us. Good language isn’t flashy. It isn’t quick. It’s effective. It’s challenging. And it can be a struggle to uncover.
But it’s worth the effort. Because it’s what love requires.
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It’s always surprising and thrilling to watch a book take shape out of the clay. The frustration, the hard work, the struggle, it’s all eventually forgotten. But the beauty and power of a well-crafted story or well-stated idea remains.
Without working through all the considerations and possibilities, a book wouldn’t eventually find it’s shape. It wouldn’t have any value. Don’t be cowed by the work. Unstoppable ideas are not born, they’re fashioned into language by a commitment to speak with power and precision. Every important idea required effort to be said, some struggle to chisel it out of all the possible words, and a commitment that’s your birthright and heritage.
Why does language matter? Because when you speak your inspired words as the culmination of all you are, you demonstrate a freedom that others long to find. You show how language frees us by allowing us to name and define our world. And it’s a truth that requires discovering yourself.
So commit to the work of editing and working with your language and forget all else. When it’s hard and unclear and requiring so much time, remember this is where the book first shows you yourself. You’ll find what you initially intended to say, maybe what you thought you already said, and ultimately what you must give readers—it’s there in the love of this gift of language. It’s always there.
Love it and love the learning, the growing more aware and adept with your basic tools, and the appreciation of your reader’s intelligence. And show them that great respect of your commitment to say it all, best and clear and true.
Will you show readers themselves by speaking your words most effectively? For a writer, what could be more fulfilling than that?
“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein
For the higher purpose,
Mick

Why editing isn’t just the how but the what  

Whenever I work with new authors, they’re eager and excited. And almost always they want to focus on how they did—whether the structure they used works and how well it “flows.”

But what I find almost 100% of the time is that first, they need help hearing what they said. And without exception, it’s surprising to them to realize what I’m hearing.

We think editing is a matter of mechanics. What we find is, it’s mostly about relevance and authenticity.

More than structure, we need to hear how we sound beyond our own heads.

Picture a singer too focused on all the other instruments to hear what his voice is contributing. Picture a painter thinking only of a person’s shape without perspective and the play of shadow and light on skin.

Language is magic. We don’t control it without patient work. And even then…

Are you open to hearing what you haven’t yet heard?

How else would we expect to learn to affect others with what’s in our minds and hearts that hasn’t yet been said?