Wednesday, October 3, 2007

With These Words

By Terrie Lynn Bittner

Yesterday, for no apparent reason, I found myself reading about the Tower of Babel. I think this event is the stuff of nightmares for writers. What is worse than the confounding of the language that is our life's work?

I wonder, though, if it made people appreciate the language they had. The Jaredites were spared, and I can imagine words became far more meaningful to them when they saw what happened to those who weren’t spared. Did they speak more carefully, making a special effort to use the most wonderful words they knew to communicate their thoughts? Did they use words sparingly, so as not to waste them, or did they use as many as they possibly could, anxiously afraid the words would disappear from memory if they didn’t?

And what of those who did lose their language? Did they ever look back longingly and regret all the times they took words for granted, never giving a thought to the wonderful gift they’d been given? When they gathered with their friends and family and tried to build a new language, they naturally started with the practical, but once the practical words were taken care of, what did they create next? What words were so important that they took the trouble to create them even though they weren’t essential for survival?

I love you.

I’m sorry.

I’m happy today.

Come watch the sunset with me.

I testify.

Dear Heavenly Father...

What words did they find they had to have to be human? When they figured out how to put those new words on paper, those few who knew how to write, did they choose the words they put down with reverence, knowing now how important it was to save the words and to make them matter?

Today, I’m sometimes shocked by the lack of concern for words in the world of writing. A teacher once told the class that using swear words was too easy. Any lazy writer could fill her book with swear words and pretend it was real writing, but the true challenge was to come up with words so interesting no one would even notice the characters weren’t swearing. I’m sure that wasn’t original advice, but where are the teachers who know that lesson today?

In the Phantom Tollbooth, by Justin Juster (certainly required reading for any writer), Milo is told, "In this box are all the words I know," he said. "Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask all the questions which have never been answered and answer all the questions which have never been asked. All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must learn to do is to use them well and in the right places."

What words would you invent first after the necessities were done?

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