The Irretrievable Word (or Mo’ Public, Mo’ Problems).

Words are everything. Words are empires; they are ruins. Words are the fiery dragon and the watery balm that extinguishes. They rouse the beast and tame the serpent. Words impress and belittle. They mock and exhort and destroy.

I am well acquainted with their import and how the hands that move them should be steadied, undefiled. But my work with them has always been doubled-edged: a dark art, a sacred vocation. I can rush them, for money, push them into a vice and turn them till they’re taut and succinct and serviceable. I can wring dry their water, make them acrid, isolating, detached. Or I can sit with them by a stream, till they glow and they flush and sustain. Words are pliable this way. And our motive, in using them, matters.

I used to have the luxury of preciousness, of doting over every blessed phrase until it sang, until I was certain I’d done it justice, until I knew I’d done no harm. But such luxuries wither away with daily deadlines, and the pageant I’d made of carefully parsing every thought has been slowly scaled down until there is little left at all: an errant simile twisting in the wind like a streamer, a string of once-electric vowels gone hollow like the echo of vuvuzelas.

This used to be what I wanted: wider readership, more frequent contributions to the funnel cloud that culls our culture’s words. But in the eye of the twister, I have clarity–and I know the significance of the work I once did: slow work, painstakingly constructed, and published only when I was pleased. Now, I know the vulnerability of dashing off words and watching them flutter quickly out of reach, rather than preening under the caress of my hand. And perhaps worst of all, I know what it is to have serious doubt that you’ve said what you mean, that you mean what you say. I know the cold sweat, the worry that wakes you at dawn and wonders: did that essay do more harm than good, did I injure the ones I hoped to help, did I do a disservice to my family, my friend, myself?

Words are everything. And when they leave the heart and they enter the air, they are no longer ours. This is hard to accept: like full-grown children, they have no choice but to reflect the way they were raised. And under the constant deluge of others’ assessment, I often feel I’ve failed them. But this is the burden of being not just noticed, but truly considered: you must always account for your way with words.

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