The Tragedy of Words

Sometimes the right words flow easy, like water or wine, like a trite simile. Like when I know you’re in love with me too and we’re safe to spew it out and be fraudulent together. Right now the words are stuck. Stuck in my throat like popcorn or glass, like when you aren’t in love with me anymore and I know it, and you know I know so we lay there avoiding eye contact. Words might come but it’s rarely the right words. The right words float around in the ether of my mind, only making themselves known in flashes and nuances before they disappear again. The right words are slippery, perpetually on the tip of my tongue, like the memories of you that tug at my heartstrings even after I’ve tried to tie them into a knot, around something concrete, something of weight, a stone or a lead pipe, something I might bury but then dig up again when it’s convenient, when I need to remember the right words existed once, that I existed at the same time as you once.

But the right words always get the last laugh. They mock me and tease. They weigh me down until I can not deny their presence, but still I can’t get them out. They well up but still I can’t exorcise them. They move too fast to be written. They change shape too often to be caught. No amount of willpower or discipline can conjure them. The right words don’t come when called. So I chase them. Or they chase me and then I hide from them. Eventually I start to doubt their existence at all. I start to doubt your existence at all. It was all in my head. It never happened. I have words, but not the right ones, to say about it.

The elusive nature of words parallels the elusive nature of love. I have been here before. It has always passed. Logic tells me this is part of the creative process, that this heartbreak is human, but still I’m doubtful I’ll make it.

Writing is the only thing that’s ever felt right. Or is that just a story I tell myself? Why do I keep telling myself these stories? The way I told myself the you I loved was real. How I arrived in you. How the right words are an arrival. Somewhere that’s new and old at the same time, like when I fall in love and it feels familiar, like an old home. How every time the words are right it’s that same feeling – just different words. So it’s not even about the words themselves, but the experience of arriving that the right ones bring. I guess it’s the same with love. It’s not even about loving you. This isn’t about loving you.

This isn’t about you because there is no you. When I write you it means everyone I’ve ever loved. It means people I haven’t yet loved but might love if a very specific but unpredictable series of events unfolds in just the right way, by chance. It means every love I’ve ever read about late at night under the blankets with a flashlight or absorbed from a screen or watched a friend cling to and then lose, or imagined in my own boring, run-of-the-mill fantasies. So you see it’s nothing personal, I just rolled 30 years worth of every love I ever witnessed into a quintessential you. That’s what the right words can do.

The tragedy of words is that once they are written, I can’t take them back. I can replace them with new words or hit the delete button or furiously scratch them out with a black ink pen, but once I write the wrong words, I can’t un-write them. Words are irrevocable. By now the original essence of what I wanted to express is gone, tarnished by the wrong words. The right words have escaped yet again.

Being a writer means a constant internal fear that I have nothing to write. Underneath is a more troubling fear that I have something to write but will never be able to find the right words to write it. The threat of self-expression is that I can’t quite remember but I can’t forget either. Imagine the purgatory of being in between holding the words and writing the words. Between staring at a blank sheet of paper and it still being blank in an hour, a week, a year, a lifetime. Imagine it having words but not the right ones. Imagine all the thought trails that occur, how lost one gets trying to untangle them, tame them, translate them. Imagine an endless search for an anchor. All the wrong words who only get to feel useful for a mere second. The way they are so soon discarded. The word-filled and word-less grief one must reconcile, that one must trudge through, and still be able to grasp for the right words when it’s over. How it’s never really over. How paralyzed I am by this process.

I try to get the right words out through other means. I go to the yoga studio and silently gaze at myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors in 105 degree heat and 40% humidity. I stare at the right side of my brain without breaking eye contact, in attempts to lasso and harness my creative willpower out of my awkward little body, balancing on one foot and then the other, hoping that a least a few good words get squeezed out with the two liters of sweat I lose. Then I lie in savasana and know that nothing has changed. The only words that come aren’t even in my native tongue. Tengo calor.

I listen to Vicktor Taiwo’s album “Joy Comes From Spirit” on repeat, begging myself to cry out, to weep openly, to sob, convinced that if I do all the unseen unheard unfelt unhonored pain that’s swelled up and stuck to my insides, will rise to the surface and turn into the right words. But no tears come, and no words come either. I think about how Vicktor wrote that the inability to exist as yourself is an insidious poison that rots you completely from the inside while also creating a hardened shell around you that becomes its own prison. I think about how I’m nothing if I’m not writing. How I’m not sure if I exist without the right words to prove it. How I am imprisoned by the right words. How if I could be relieved of the bondage of the right words my edges would soften agan, my heart would disarm. The freedom it would bring.

Every writer knows that the only thing worse than not writing is writing words that aren’t right. I am still writing, but I have not found the right words in months. I write little vignettes with no resolution, stories with no plot. I write in my journal dreams I’ve had, emotions I wish I could ignore. I write hoards of memoir titles but I have no plans to write a memoir. I write haphazard lists on the Notes in my iPhone. I try to tell myself that there’s a deeper meaning to the lists, since I read once that Ray Bradbury claimed makings lists were the key to his creativity. I feel like Joan Didion and Susan Sontag agreed with him, so I make ongoing lists of things that strike me. I keep telling myself it all matters. It matters. This matters.

I must act as if I believe that one of these random things might be the conduit to finishing my manuscript. Sidenote: I’ve stopped saying the word manuscript because it feels too risky. When I use the “M” word people respond, wow what’s your manuscript about? And then my heart sinks because the part of me that knows what it’s about is not the part of me that’s able to speak it into existence for other people.

I am trying to write sense. I am trying to write certainty. But the right words won’t bring either.

When I was a kid I thought that if I just wrote the right words in my diary somehow I could stop my family from falling apart or my dad from going to jail or the kid with the bowl haircut from telling me I was ugly. I thought I could write myself a new reality, that I could feel safe, assured that the world I found myself in made sense. But the right words bring only that momentary arrival. Then they strand you.

The right words will strand you. The right words bring danger, not safety, because the right words bring with it truths too big to face. That’s why we conceal them in words.

I go to a man who I can only call my grandfather, or my father, or someone in between a father and a grandfather. I never had much of either so I can only imagine that this is what it feels like to have one, although we are born of different continents and our blood has taken wildly different trajectories across the globe. I go to him and he laughs in a way that I’ve come to recognize means he’s charmed by this world we continue to find ourselves in. This world we didn’t ask for but keeps asking for us. His eyes water and he tells me that something is haunting me. He tells me that something is calling me to be that which I am not yet. He always speaks in the right words like that.

He laughs and tells me about an old friend who is still traumatized by trying to write a novel years ago. How she can’t even speak about writing anymore. She never finished the novel. I think perhaps he invented the story to reveal something to me. To show me to myself. Instead of just telling me that my fear of the right words is worse than writing them.

Yes I am haunted. He laughs and says, “why don’t you write about it?”



One thought on “The Tragedy of Words

  1. You are loved.

    By me, a total stranger who is good at writing but never brave enough to “take the plunge” and put my stuff out there. Also, who read your story on the OC87 Diaries email I get, and felt so deeply what you shared.

    It may sound silly to hear “I love you” from a stranger on the internet, but I mean it. I also mean it when I say, “I understand.”


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