path winding through autumn trees

Rediscovering the Beauty of Words

 June 2, 2024

Somehow over the years, I’ve lost some of my delight in words. Gratefully now, I’m working on rediscovering the beauty of words.

History with Words

In high school, I used to play with words, at times seeing how many pages of description I could write for something familiar. I mean, how many ways can you describe a toaster? In college, after a writing class where the instructor was so enamored of Hemingway that any writing that didn’t mimic Hemingway’s minimalism was covered with red marks, I learned to cut out all unnecessary words, descriptors, etc.

This tendency to cut to the chase while writing and later going back to fill in has, at times, led me to miss the moment, move too quickly onto the next action rather than luxuriously draw the incident out. Fortunately, I have an editor who reminds me to slow down at significant passages, thereby building tension.

Present Time

Here I am, fifty years later, and I’m learning to reclaim my wonder at words. While attending a writer’s retreat in Alaska back in September, I was surprised by how excited I was to hear Marilyn McEntyre, co-facilitator for the retreat, share passages from great writers, especially poets. I’m not a poet and I’m not an avid reader of poetry, but there are some … Shakespeare, Frost, Dickinson, Mary Oliver … that I love. McEntyre’s own use of words, carefully choosing and crafting her sentences, led me to admiration.

No one does Hemingway like Hemingway. I’m no James Joyce or Robert Frost or Mary Oliver, but perhaps I can rediscover the joy of playing with words, letting them swirl around in my mouth like a fine wine, then drinking them down till they become one with me, changing my attitude and world view.

The Ecology of Words

In her book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, McEntyre continues her mission to uplift the power and beauty of words. In her opening essay, she uses the language of stewardship and environment and applies them to words.

“To call upon another analogy, if language is to retain its power to nourish and sustain our common life, we have to care for it in something like the way good farmers care for the life of the soil, knowing nothing worth eating can be grown in soil that has been used up, overfertilized, or exposed to too many toxic chemicals. The comparison, I believe is pertinent, timely and precise—and urgent.” (pp 2-3) Need I list the examples of toxic words that fill our airwaves?

McEntyre quotes Wendell Berry talking about the disintegration of language, “my impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” (Wendell Berry, “Standing by Words,” in Standing by Words, p. 14)

The Industrialization of Words

McEntyre goes on to state, “We need to reclaim words that have been colonized and held hostage by commercial and political agencies that have riddled them with distorted meanings.” (p. 7)

“Like food, language has been ‘industrialized.’ Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and intention to find, buy, eat, and support the production of organic foods, it is a strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language.” (p. 17) McEntyre’s language is an example of this enlivening language.

She goes on to state, “Our language practices in this culture are unsustainable. We are depleting a precious resource that can only partially and slowly be renewed by active resistance to the forces at work to erode it.” (p. 18) Wow, so evident.

In the following chapters she talks about the need to: Love Words (Chapter 1), Tell the Truth (Chapter 2), Don’t Tolerate Lies (Chapter 3), Stay in Conversation (Chapter 5), Share Stories (Chapter 6), Cherish Silence (Chapter 12). All to help us revive the art of conversation and rediscover the power and beauty of words.

Walking on Water

Madeleine L’Engle, in her book Walking on Water, states, “Because I am a storyteller and that involves language, for me the English language, that wonderfully rich, complex and oftimes confusing tongue. When language is limited, I am thereby diminished too.” (p. 37) “When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles—we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than ‘the way things are.’” (p. 39) Words written in 1980 yet continuing to be relevant.

Madeleine L’Engle compares artists to iconographers, creating “icons of the truth.” An icon is both a symbol of something greater and contains some quality of what it represents. Iconography requires great discipline, prayer and anonymity. Icons seek to open a window by which we can get a “new glimpse of the love of God.” (p. 28)

Rediscovering the Beauty of Words

Writers are tellers of stories, bearers of truth. Through writing we give others a glimpse of truth. This is a great vocation. Ours is a mission to the world to honor truth and beauty through our words and the stories they tell. It can be easy to lose sight of the mission as writing takes a toll on the writer. But never lose sight of the beauty that is found in words and in creating. It is this vision, this beauty, this mission, and knowing that I am part of a great community of writers that restores me and gives me the energy to keep on.

And so, I am actively working at rediscovering the beauty of words. Even if I write in haste, I slow down as I revise, and revise, and revise, taking longer to ensure I use the words that more accurately describe the truth I am seeking to tell; restoring truth in a culture of lies. The beauty in words lies in the truth of those words.

What about you? How do you bring truth and beauty to the words you use? How can we restore truth to the social dialogue that surrounds us?


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