Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Words

Photo by Cara Lopez Lee

A word is not reality. It’s a metaphor for reality. So, in a way, every word is a story. Just open a dictionary and look up any word: pronunciation, part of speech, definitions, usage, origin, and whatever else your dictionary tells you. Let’s try it with “sentient” and the American Heritage Dictionary:

Sentient (sĕnshənt, -shē-ənt) adj. 1) Having sense perception; conscious: “The living knew themselves just sentient puppets on God’s stage” (T.E. Lawrence). 2) Experiencing sensation or feeling. [Latin sentiēns, sentient-, present participle of sentīre, to feel…]

According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of “sentient” was in 1632.

Every word has a history. Each word we personally know also has a history within us. To me, “sentient” is the story of HAL 9000, the self-aware computer who killed astronaut Frank Poole and tried to kill David Bowman, in the book and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Sentient” calls up the chilling moment when Dave retrieves Frank’s body from space and HAL won’t let him back into the ship:

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

As storytellers, we use words to create sequences with beginnings, middles, and ends. We use words to define patterns of desire, conflict, and change. We use words to express the rhythms we feel in our bodies. 

At one writing workshop I took, the instructor told us her baby was only a few months old but already knew what a story was, reacting differently to the rhythms of storytelling than to other types of speech. Surely she hit on the reason I love stories: before I ever understood what anyone was saying, I knew the rising and falling tones of a bedtime tale, the feel of warm arms around me, heartbeat in one ear, words in the other, sensations that told me I was loved.

Sometimes I turn to fellow writers, teachers, and mentors for advice on craft. Often I read literature, sending the words of great authors tumbling through my mind until they break down into building blocks I can rearrange into new stories. 

But in the end, the stories I tell are up to me.

I’ve found that the magic of storytelling is in surrendering, not to anyone else’s notions, but to the words in my head. I believe this: my subconscious knows better than I how to tell a story. Only it can call up all the words I’ve stored through a lifetime of reading, watching movies and TV, listening to radio, and talking. Sometimes the best writing strategy is no strategy at all, simply the willingness to let the subconscious take over.

Writers wander alone into our mysterious heads not because we’re crazy—though some may be—but because it’s the only place to find the words we seek. We wander alone into our wild hearts, not because we crave loneliness, but because it’s the only way to feel the rhythm that is ours and ours alone. I have a voice, and the only way to hear its uniqueness, distinct from all others, is to sing alone in the dark.

If you cannot stand loneliness, find a writing group. If you need support, go where other writers are. If you need feedback, seek mentors. But here’s my two cents: ultimately, only your own instinct can decide which words to use to sing your song. Don’t wait for others to inspire you. Don’t wait for inspiration at all. I suggest there’s no better reason to tell your story than a simple love of words.

I’m not saying I want nothing more. I want plenty. But before everything else, comes the words.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.” – Genesis 1:1

Cara Lopez Lee is the author of the memoir They Only Eat Their Husbands. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Los Angeles TimesDenver PostConnotation Press, and Rivet Journal. She’s a book editor, a writing coach, and a faculty member at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. She was a journalist in Alaska and North Carolina, and a writer for HGTV and Food Network. An avid traveler, she has explored twenty countries and most of the fifty United States. She and her husband live in Denver.


  1. When my daughter was three, she started carrying around a 1970's paperback dictionary complete with psychodelic cover art. She would open it and scribble on paper. I asked her once why she liked the dictionary so much since she couldn't read it. She replied, "It has all the words in it." Even young children understand the power of a word.

    1. Love it, Diana! I'm really into dictionaries. Sometimes when I look up a word I came across in a novel, I start finding so many other cool words during my search that I end up reading the dictionary for a while. For one of my birthdays, my husband gave me one of those giant dictionaries I can barely lift. His nephew said, "You don't understand women," and my husband replied, "You don't know my wife."

    2. Indeed, Polly. It's such a gift to feel understood, especially for a writer.

  2. Whenever my wife asks me to do something I don't want to do, I respond with 'I'm sorry, Cheryl, I can't do that', in the voice of Hal. I always think it's hilarious ... she doesn't. Annnnywaaaay, you got deep on us, Clara ... good stuff.

    1. Oh man, Christopher, I think if you talked to me in that voice I'd get scared! I saw that movie for the first time when I was about 7 years old, and I never got over it.

    2. Blame Jason P. Henry for this post. His post last Friday on "Seeking the Muse" really got me thinking.

  3. I love when there is only one word for something. You can look it up in the Thesaurus, but no other word fits other than the one you're looking up. Some words are perfect, irreplaceable, and magic. Great post, Cara. I still want your husband.

    1. Yes, Polly! I love that there's really no other word for deja vu. Even the phrase "the feeling that you've experienced something before" doesn't fully capture it. And you can't have my husband. ;)

  4. One of my favorite topics -- words! (Isn't there a song in My Fair Lady spouting Eliza's complaint about words?)

    Years ago I worked as a theme reader for a school district near Seattle and read papers from students in grades 4-12 in 5 different schools. So many times I encouraged them to paint word pictures or commended them for their exquisite word pictures that blossomed in living color in the readers' minds. Without words, we are lost. Wrong words can hurt us (or worse). Right words at the right time can soothe the tortured soul. Excellent post, Cara!

  5. Thanks, Linda. So wonderful, encouraging kids to paint pictures with words! And yes, Eliza Doolittle tells Freddie she's tired of words in the song "Show Me": "Words! Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
    I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars Burning above; If you're in love, Show me!" I disagree a bit with Eliza. As a writer I say, "Show me AND tell me." ;)

  6. Loved this: "only your own instinct can decide which words to use to sing your song." You made a good point in encouraging writers to seek input on their work, but still trust their instincts. I look at critique and editorial feedback as suggestions for me to consider. If several people are saying the same thing, then maybe they are right about something I need to change, but if only one does, and it doesn't feel right, then I may not make the change. And when I do workshops I tell attendees that what I suggest is not cast in stone. Use what works for you and ignore the rest. But please don't snore. LOL


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