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Words are Where We Start

By Laurie MacDiarmid
Associate Professor of English and Writer-in-Residence 

Words are where we start. I begin by putting these particular words, one after another, in a row on the page, and hope that by some fortunate accident they discover something that I didn’t know when I began.

Words are the writer’s material, and have heft, a dramatic look on the page, a sound/shape in the mouth, a taste. Words are sensual bodies with personalities, characters who inhabit and wear our dreams, a delicious contradiction: the intangible made tangible, the expression (we hope) of the inexpressible.

Words allow us to think; without language, there is no thought, no personality, no consciousness, no humanity. If words create the self, a writer has the power to create life and to change it.

And so words are dangerous. The writer engaged in the writing process is always aware of this, even as words slip into place with a satisfying click. What are we building? Will it be an Eden, or the monster child cast out from it?

Each writing venture is, as T.S. Eliot says, “a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,” a sometimes frustrating foray into “the general mess” of life, inchoate emotions or experience.

There are always times when we fail, when there’s just no way to find the words we need to say just what we mean or to discover just what we mean, or when the string of words leads to a dead end.

Despite the divinity of words, despite their power to define, uplift, connect and immortalize us, the writer who announces a vocation must always answer the question, “What are you going to do with that?” And so the process of choosing words to discover ideas is not only dangerous and lonely, but, at least according to the world with its eye on the bottom line, potentially useless. Is it any wonder that writers complain, from time to time, that they are blocked?

And yet the writer sits down, again and again, and puts one word after another, searching for the proper image, phrase, sentence, paragraph, page, to express just what she means. Despite the dangers, he presses on, sifting through the language, looking for the right word, and then the next, and the next. For us, finally, there is only the important business of trying.