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1000 Black Lines

:: digital coffee stains on the paper of the blogosphere ::

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The Writing Life -- Lesson Three

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard states that "The written word is weak." She writes that words are weak in relation to life's sensual appeal and requires intellect and imagination to enjoy the subtleness of static ink on paper. This is true. In order to enjoy the depth and power or words you must grasp their subtle nuances. But I believe words are both delicate and fragile as well as powerful and indelible. For example, the delicate choice of words one might compose in a letter to a lover; a careful string of words to suggest just enough to require a response, but withholding elements that might seal a commitment. Or recall the powerful promise of the written "We the people..." that is archived in the halls of our capitol and inscribed upon our hearts and minds. These thoughts have troubled my mind for several weeks. Are words weak? Or are they powerful?

A few weeks ago, I received an email that sent me into days of despair. After reading the digital words, I became confused and hurt. This isn't the first email message I've received to assault my spirit so violently. I followed the routines and rituals of life as a path to return to normalcy. "Sticks and stones... but words will never hurt," I steeled my soul with this mantra. Words are weak, I tried to convince myself.

Days and nights preyed upon me as the eagle ravages its victim. Many a time I tried to forget my misfortune by occupying myself with books and scriptures of past generation, but it was like extinguishing fire with oil... The Book of Job was more fascinating to me than the Psalms and I preferred the Elegies of Jeremiah to the Song of Solomon... Thus despair weakens our sight and… We can see nothing but specters of doom and can hear only the beating of our agitated hearts...
--Khalil Gibran, Broken Wings


Someone was not pleased with a story I wrote (rough draft actually) and now I am more cautious when opening any emails. I've become afraid of the potentially venomous sting of words a mere click away. How should I respond to such caustic use of the English language? Though the email harbored no profanity, it leveled my spirit with its artillery of letters. How could I let these weak words pierce my soul so successfully?

At first I was horrified, how could they hate what I wrote? I meant no malice, quite the opposite. I meant to extol the subject of my story. There had been a pleasant camaraderie with the subject. Then, I wanted to apologize. But for what? The story was true. And I was witness to it. But sometimes when a story is told the main character does not like to view their reflected image in words. Next, I waited because I did not want to open any emails for fear of Pandora's cyber plagues. For several weeks I waited and the unopened email messages grew very long. Then my thoughts returned to Annie Dillard's The Writing Life.

Many people prefer life to it. Life gets your blood going, and it smells good. Writing is mere writing, literature is mere. It appeals only to the subtlest senses--the imagination's vision, and the imagination's hearing--and the moral sense, and the intellect. This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else. The reader's ear must adjust down from loud life to the subtle, imaginary sounds of the written word.


Maybe that's what prompted the email I received. Life may have been too loud for the reader and to adjust the ear to the whisper of the written word may have been frightening. Maybe I should have expressed that the reader place an ear to the page and listen to the inked paper like an audience witnessing an orchestra tune their instruments before a concert. Once the ear is properly accustomed to the imaginary sounds of words then the reader should focus on the content of the story and enjoy the delicate power of literature.

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