Sunday, April 26, 2020

Words' Worth

This post was first published on the Hedgehog Communications microsite.

When I was eight years old, a cousin saw me engrossed in an Enid Blyton book and told me, “You should become an author when you grow up.” My greedy little heart thought, “Yeah, writing’s great and all, but I really want to be a cashier because they collect all the money.” 

I have since repented from my mercenary ways. (Besides, I know now that cashiers don’t get to keep the money. It’s the bookstores).

But the idea of being an author was planted in my impressionable mind, and it was not an unappealing one. I learned from an early age that words have power. It wasn’t just that they could transport me to worlds unimaginable. It was the seemingly infinite ways in which they could be used to express a multitude of things. And I had endless opinions. On everything.

I fed my appetite for words with books from the library, ten at a go. I borrowed words and phrases liberally, and used them with wild abandon in my compositions, writing reams of stories—sometimes true, sometimes a romanticised version of the truth, other times existing only in my alternate fantasy universe. But they were virtually always funny. Humour is an effective facade for tortured souls and teenage angst, and it came naturally to me, almost frighteningly so.

English was by far, my favourite subject in school and I aced it without breaking a sweat. If there was such a thing as Teacher’s Pet for Writing Compositions and Grammar Nazi Tendencies, that would be me (which did nothing for my popularity, but that’s another story).

However, the easy confidence I had in my creative writing abilities faded as I transitioned into adulthood. The more I read, the more I realised how handicapped I was in my expression. After I wept over Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, raged over Alex Haley’s Roots, and had many sleepless nights over Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, I despaired that I would never be able to write like these giants. Becoming an author was stowed away in the Impossible Dream drawer, the same one as being a tall supermodel.

Life went on and by sheer chance, I was thrust into a career in communications, of which writing played a big role. Once again, the words flowed through me with familiar ease like an old friend and I grew comfortable with this shift in voice: from creative to corporate writing. When I decided to step out and start my own business ten years later, copywriting was a natural choice. It was the only tangible skill that I trusted enough to anchor me in the big, scary world of enterprise.

For some inexplicable reason, people really liked my writing. “Do your magic, Monica!” a client told me. I waited for someone to tell me that I was really a fraud, that all I did was string buzzwords together in pretty sentences, but it never came. The business blossomed.

And yet, I had an itch waiting to be scratched. Each time it resurfaced, I would poke at it distractedly or try to ignore it, but it didn’t go away. 

I wanted to tell stories. 

I started a blog, mostly to tell stories of my kids, and also to share my opinions (yeah, still had them by the truckload). Some of the posts went viral. Suddenly, my words had teeth. Whether I was talking about parenting, the education system or 377A, people were reading, agreeing, disagreeing, arguing, dissecting, sharing. It was no longer just about me and my opinions. The words brought people together…and divided them.

And then it happened—through the blog, I received a book offer. The dream that I had so neatly kept in the discard pile was revived. I grasped the opportunity with both hands, but couldn’t rid my mind of this niggling self-doubt: “You’re a copywriter, not an author. Are you sure you can do this?"

The book was published in 2013. Then in quick succession, another 14 children’s books followed in 6 years, co-written with my daughter. Not only were the books not panned as I’d feared, we received compliments from kids who couldn’t seem to get enough of our stories. The one that moved me most came from a mother who said her special needs child son to read but read our books from cover to cover. It unnerved me a little—that our words carried so much weight.

I began to accept that the title of “author” might legitimately apply to me after all. Copywriter, creative writer, is there really a distinct line separating them? Perhaps it’s the same voice, just one that has learned to speak different languages.

I had become a sharper writer, simply from the sheer amount of time I had spent writing over more than four decades. The words came easier and more freely. I knew intuitively that a sentence was more accurately described as “pedestrian” instead of just “ordinary”. I became better at assigning words to my thoughts and emotions, giving substance and credence to what’s immaterial.

As much as I used words to shape my reality, the words shaped me. With each blog post and book, I was telling a story, but they in turn, shaped my narrative as a writer, as a person. I look back at my earliest blog posts and cringe at the bright, brash tone. It was me from a different time, without the temperance that comes with maturity.

It’s easy to lapse into complacency when words become a familiar tool. “Don’t write on auto-pilot,” I tell my copywriters. The acute awareness of the power of words convinced me that they needed to be treated with respect and mindfulness. “Say what you mean.” 

Recently, I received an unexpected thank you email from the daughter of my late piano teacher, whom I’d written a tribute to on my blog. “You cannot imagine how much comfort it has brought to me and my family,” the daughter wrote. “It's so real.” My piano teacher had passed on 15 years ago in 2005. The blog post was written in 2015. Words matter. And on the Internet, words live forever. 

It struck me that perhaps the spotlight on words needed to swing from power to responsibility, especially on the web (all puns intended). Instead of focusing on what words can do, we should be focusing on what they ought to. With social media, it’s all too easy to wield words as ammunition to cut, to mock, to disparage. And for someone who works with words day in and out, words are potentially as lethal in my hands as a rifle for a sniper.

Perhaps it’s the sentimentality of age, or the growing cognisance that one day, my words might come back to haunt me. But more and more, I’m seeing that words used to encourage, affirm, delight and inspire, even if done without much thought, can have enduring impact. Sometimes, if I’m fortunate enough, they ricochet back to me. And they remind me that what I do is a gift and a privilege.

Monica is head hedgehog which makes her the prickliest of them all, especially before her morning coffee. 

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...