A Magical Word for Writers

July 21, 2009

It has been said that words are one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind. In that they allow us to scratch the surface of an idea and to share that experience with a limited group of others… yes, words are invaluable. But without the incarnation of idea, words are hardly more than mathematical symbols. They are, in fact, rather blunt instruments that often get in the way of true magic. This basic linguistic understanding greatly informs my own storytelling.

IMO too many writers are confused about this fact, and they become slaves to the romantic notion that words have some innate power that supersedes ideas which can, like a crutch, weaken their own ideas and certainly their ability to share those ideas with a large audience, assuming that interests them.

Language. Growing up as a missionary kid on an island that had over 700 distinct languages and nearly as many linguists who’d committed their lives to understanding those languages and translating the Bible into them, I was introduced to the world of language and words very young.

There are roughly 6,000 spoken languages in the world today. Of those, roughly 28% have fewer than 1,000 speakers. Not taking into consideration duplication or dialects, let’s then say that there are roughly 6,000 words for what we call a “Pig” in the world today. Three of these are, Pig (English,) Wam (Dani,) and Babi (Indonesian.) The word Wam, which means pig to only a few thousand people in the world, is nothing but nonsense to the rest of the world. Garbage. Only when both the speaker and the hearer connect to that word an idea (in this case a four-legged creature with a specific set of defining characteristics) does the word have any great value.

Words are of little value unless they effectively synthesize an idea. Now, the idea of a pig, this wonderful four-legged beast treasured in the east and slaughtered in the west, is universally magical. But the word itself, Wam or Babi or Pig, is only magical in that it, like a tag or a number, identifies the idea behind that word.

As storytellers, we must be slaves to bringing ideas and story to life in the imagination of others. Words can be either magnificent tools in helping us achieve this end, or blunt obstacles to that same end. Either way, we must remember that they are only that. Conduits for the exchange of ideas. The wiring that allows for transference, like in a computer processor, hence the comparison of language and mathematics.

Naturally it’s tough to separate words from the ideas they represent in any given language, so yes, you could make the argument that words are as magical as the idea’s they represent, but only if they work as advertised which has as much to do with the reader as with the writer because the words by themselves are weak, dormant, useless. Certainly not magical.

So what does this mean to us as writers? If your stories are awakening magic in the hearts and minds of many that speak your language, your words are probably not getting in the way of that magical story. You’re hitting enough right switches and sending enough right signals to ignite within others the idea that has been awakened in your own mind. The light has gone on in the reader’s mind and they are thrilled by the magic. The “wiring” in your novel—no matter how crude or twisted or odd or interesting other writers might think of it—has illuminated many lights, perhaps many more than their own fine wiring. Bravo.

If, however, your stories are awakening magic in the hearts and minds of only a few in same said language, your words might very well be getting in the way for most. Not necessarily a bad thing, by the way, but not effective if one of your hopes is to share said story with many as opposed to the few who get your fine wiring.

The geeks care about the innards of that iMac, but most only care about what’s on the screen. The idea. A good writer is one who can take those rather blunt instruments called words and string them together in a way that turns lights on.

So, is Stephanie Meyer a good writer? Clearly her words aren’t getting in the way of her ideas. She’s ignited them in the imaginations of many quite effectively. Regardless of how you might judge those ideas, the transference of them through this medium called words is clearly good. From a linguist’s perspective, you would be hard pressed not to call that an excellent use of words. The wiring works well. Her use of writing is good. Even excellent.

Another case and point: Which is the better metaphorical use of words to describe Jesus in John 1:29, Lamb of God or Piglet of Allah? Both are metaphors, both are fiction, both are true, neither was written or spoken by John himself (he didn’t speak English or Dani.)

The linguists where I grew up used the latter metaphor because these words best translated the verse’s true meaning among a group that had never seen a lamb. Instead they carried around their treasured piglets as a shepherd might carry around a lamb.

When transference of a story is the writer’s objective, the best writing is that which best illuminates the magic of that story in the reader’s mind.

Go find a magical idea. Use words to pass it on to others. This is a beautiful thing.

Are you writer? Agree or disagree, comment below. Be heard.

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