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How I Fell in Love With Words

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For a period of years, I exchanged letters with a boy. He was smart, and I felt flattered by his long-distance attention. I loved the way his words looked on the page, and after devouring the content of his letters, I would stare at his penmanship. His handwriting was distinctive; long, thin strokes in the “T’s” and “L’s”; his vowels undersized, tiny and tight. Very controlled. My “P’s” and “L’s” wanted to loop. My vowels were large and open, like my heart.

During this period, I focused on composing the best letters I could. I explained – dissected – deconstructed and reconstructed the world for him in an attempt to get him to see things through my eyes. I showed him the beauty of the cigarette butt left on the filthy street corner and wondered about the woman with the orange-red lipstick who had held it in her mouth. I addressed my envelopes, licked my stamps, sent my poetry and prose. And since there was neither instant messaging nor Skype nor Facebook nor email in the 1980s, I had to wait  . . . and wait. . . and wait for the postal carrier to (finally) bring me a long anticipated envelope. And always his responses were wonderful: filled with answers and more questions, more observations which led to more thinking, reflecting, writing.

Through our correspondence, I fell in love. With words. I learned how, in English, multi-syllabic words have a way of softening the impact of language, how they can show compassion, tenderness and tranquility. Conversely, I learned that single-syllable words could show rigidity, honesty, toughness, relentlessness. I saw how words could invoke anger, sadness, lust, and joy. As an adult, when speaking, I sometimes feel like I did not say quite the right thing. But when writing, I have time to be careful, to ponder, to find a new way to say something old. I can craft something magical.

I have always said that the best writing is born in obsession, rooted in a specific place.

My favorite word is “apricot” because it invokes a specific sense of smell, of taste and touch – but for me, it also reminds me of a particular morning in a particular place when the sun rose and made the world glow. It is a juicy word. A sweet word. A golden word scented with summer. I use the word “apricot” to show my students how one image can hold a lot of weight.

Some day I will thank that boy who made me want to revise, who made me want to give him only my best, most delicious words, my most ferocious images. Wherever he is, I hope he is still writing, too.

What are your favorite/least favorite words? And what do they evoke for you?

4 thoughts on “How I Fell in Love With Words

  1. I try to appreciate all words; even those which attempt to confuse me with spelling nuances or difficult pronunciation twists that don’t follow the norm. I didn’t develop a love of words by exchanging letters but I remember having an old dictionary with a tattered cover, a broken spine and old yellowed pages; all filled with words, their definitions and clues to their origin and use.

    If I’d hated words, it would have been easy to fling that delicate old book across the room and trash the subsequent wreckage. Instead, I handled it like a family heirloom whose fragile pages had to be turned gently to keep them from falling out of the binding or possibly crumbling in my fingers.

    Alas, after a few decades, my well-worn friend became an afterthought. Was it computers with spellcheck? Online dictionaries? Or did I simply run out of words that required me to become familiar with their intimate details? Mostly, I ran out of time. No time to pull down an invaluable reference in order to become lost in another world for five or ten minutes while soaking up a word and its cousins waiting nearby on the page.

    I still find the time to enjoy numerous books and occasionally find myself drawn to one that I’d read years ago. The one book that isn’t in my library to go back and read is that old dictionary. I miss it but even it would have been the first to admit that I was due for an upgrade. Maybe I can find a slightly worn, well-appreciated version at the used bookstore – that would be perfect.

  2. I never think about a favorite or least favorite word. I don’t guess I really notice whether or not I like a particular word. I do, however, notice whether or not it’s spelled correctly, used correctly (such as there, their, they’re) and whether or not the grammar is correct.

    Sometimes I wish I could just read and not notice such things, but I just can’t do it. I guess I’m too critical, but I always want to correct the writer/speaker for misusing the language. I don’t do it, but I want to.

    Does that make me weird?

  3. I’m probably one of the few people left that actually has personalized stationary, envelopes and a fountain pen. The notes are useful for so many occasions .

    1. There are definitely waaaaay fewer people with personalized stationery these days, but I still love receiving a handwritten note. So few people take the time to do that these days.

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