The Tragedy of Words

Sometimes the right words flow easy, like water or wine. Like when I know you’re in love with me too and we’re safe to spew it out and be fraudulent together. But right now the words are stuck in my throat, like popcorn or glass. Like when you aren’t in love with me anymore and I didn’t know until it was already the end. Words might come but 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 will 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 burden me 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, and 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 another story I tell myself? Why do I keep telling myself these stories? The way I tell myself the you I love is 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 and gorgeous 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 grandiose but 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 it back. I can replace 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. Love is that way too. I can’t take it back.

I live under siege of a constant internal fear that I have nothing to write. Beneath 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. Imagine staring at a blank sheet of paper and it still being blank in an hour, a week, a year, a lifetime. Or maybe it has words but not the right ones. Imagine all the thought trails that spiral, how lost one gets trying to untangle them, tame them, translate them. How lost I get trying to untangle you, tame you, translate you.

Imagine an endless search for an anchor back to what’s true. All the wrong words who only get to feel useful for a mere second. The way they too, are soon discarded. The word-filled and word-less grief I must reconcile, that I must trudge through, and still be able to grasp for the right words when it’s over. How it’s never really over. 

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

I try to get the right words out through other means. I go to the hot 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 again, my heart would disarm. Oh 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 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.

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 who I thought I loved 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 (love) will strand you. The right words (love) bring danger, not safety, because the right words (love) bring with it truths too big to face. That’s why we conceal it (love) in words.

Yes, I am haunted. If I knew what this was about, I wouldn’t have to write it.

But this isn’t about loving you.



Read: Dear Future Boyfriend

3 thoughts 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.”


  2. I love the idea of “you”. Not you specifically but the concept of you as a summation of life’s experiences. Nothing can be taken out of context. You are everyone I’ve ever known or met because those experiences define how I see you as an individual. Does that even make sense? It does to me, so thank you.


  3. Is there such thing as the “right words” or the “right love”? Or are the words and love within you, and the manifestation of those words or love is never right, just what you commit to, believe is true and right. The parallel between the two is so interesting.


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