Monday, September 15, 2014

Little Girl Be Careful What You Say

A few of my trophies!
by Elizabeth

A huge part of my college experience was participating in Forensics. Not dealing with dead bodies, but Speech and Debate. My favorite events, and the ones at which I most excelled, were under the umbrella of "Oral Interpretation"--basically taking poems and prose and plays and acting them with mostly my voice.

One of my favorite poems in four years of competition was Carl Sandburg's:

Little girl, be careful what you say
when you make talk with words, words—
for words are made of syllables
and syllables, child, are made of air—
and air is so thin—air is the breath of God—
air is finer than fire or mist,
finer than water or moonlight,
finer than spider-webs in the moon,
finer than water-flowers in the morning:
     and words are strong, too,
    stronger than rocks or steel
stronger than potatoes, corn, fish, cattle,
and soft, too, soft as little pigeon eggs,
soft as the music of hummingbird wings.
     So, little girl, when you speak greetings,
when you tell jokes, make wishes or prayers,
     be careful, be careless, be careful.
     be what you wish to be
This came to mind recently when I read a couple of articles about a debut novelist and her work. I'm not going to go into specifics or identify the writer or the novel, because I find that as uncool as what I felt the writer did. The book sounded great, challenging and  with an engaging story and lovely prose. A winner, and I had in mind to get myself a copy when it hits the bookstores soon.
But then I saw another article, and in it, the writer made a comment that in my opinion called me boring. Me personally, and thinking about it, really almost everyone in my closest circles. No, she didn't actually say "You, Elizabeth Lynd, are not worth talking to," but she might as well have. Yowza.
What really bothered me is that the statement was more or less in self defense, and while I have no problem with that, there was no reason to then dismiss the population who had not shared the writer's experiences. What she said was akin to saying something like, if you have never eaten at a five star restaurant, you have no idea what good food tastes like. Really? When she could have just as easily said, if you have eaten at a five star restaurant, you almost certainly know what great food tastes like. Subtle, still gets the opinion across, and not offensive. If you've never had a child you have no idea what love is. Ouch. If you've had children, you definitely understand love. If you've never survived cancer, you don't understand the value of life. If you've survived cancer, you might have a stronger understanding of the value of life than before you were diagnosed. Et cetera.
I don't think the writer was trying to put anyone down. I think she was trying to explain her character, her book, and to a certain extent, herself, and make the point that adversity can create a better person. And I agree with that; but I don't agree that someone who is fortunate enough to traverse the planet less scathed than some of her sisters is somehow inferior.
It comes down to words. And as writers, we deal in words, the ones we write, and if we are very lucky, the ones we get to say when that writing is shared with the world. Sure, speaking is laden with opportunities for mistakes--my forensics career taught me that time and again--but we are writers, and we know words matter. The ones we write, and the ones we say. The ones that writer spoke cost her my buying her book, cost her me ever reading it probably. A small thing, but the opposite of what she was speaking out for in the first place.
As writers, we will hopefully be called to speak. When we do, we should take care. We should be what we wish to be.

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