‘Words As’ is our regular guest posting. We invite creatives of all ilks to respond to the prompt ‘words as’. This month we welcome author Lois Spangler to the page to share her thoughts.
Words as. . . .
Words as what? Fundamentally, words are the bits of language that mean a discrete thing. Go any smaller, and now you have sounds, which are important, but don’t convey a concept themselves. Even prefixes and suffixes don’t quite do it — they rely on the trunk word to have any relative meaning.
Like atoms, you string them together into molecules and you get sentences. A word is potential; it’s informed by other words in a cluster of themselves, and each one contributes to a communicative quality. So, words as chemistry?
Maybe. The word as an atom, the sentence as a molecule. The paragraph as a matrix, and the chapter as a recognisable component of a larger and relatively homogeneous whole. Can a book be a slab of limestone? Or better, can it be a near limitless combination of things — wood and plastic, a carburettor and a smartwatch, separate but near enough to each other to build some meaning? Stephen King has described writing as an act of personal archaeology, revealing things in one’s own mind in the building of a story.
But this approach is limited. Why? We’re talking about stories, which is a separate subject, but stories aren’t the only things words can convey. In this metaphor, where does poetry fit in? Words in poetry convey story sometimes, but often they convey a feeling, a deep inchoate sense of a moment or a state. And they often do it while flouting the rules of prose language. These things aren’t story, but they are just as important.
Poetry aside, we haven’t even considered the quotidian roles for words, like contracts and technical manuals. How do they fit in? In a sense, the chemistry metaphor still stands. A contract tells a story in the imperative, in a way, and so does a manual. The former sets up expectations, and the latter offers guidance.
Maybe we’re still too narrow, or maybe we’re still too broad. Let’s try again.
Words as. . . .
…Words as currency? This implies that words have value, which isn’t entirely incorrect. But it also implies that they can be offered in exchange for non-word things, and this isn’t incorrect either. But can you hoard words? Shore up words like you would in a bank, giving you clout in society in the same way money would? Can you invest words and expect a return?
In a sense, yes. And this is where we’re beginning to narrow in on the metaphorical heart of words. Words as wisdom. Even the emptiest phrases stand to teach us something, defining meaning through the negative space of their own intentions. And the things words teach can be very small in scope, or very large; and that scope doesn’t need to be directly related to stakes.
But even though words contain wisdom, can be hoarded and exchanged, they don’t come into being on their own. They need authors. And for words to function at all, they need an audience. They need us.
Words as us.
Words are some of the closest things to magic we have in this world. I want to share something that is in my mind, a thing that is separate from other living beings. Words let me do that, however imperfectly. They let me offer a little bit of me to you. They’re not proxies, they’re not representatives; they are an imperfect mosaic of myself that I send out into the world, and that you interpret under your own contexts and experiences.
While words can divide, they can unite. While they can alienate, they can also welcome. So with these final words, I welcome you to this shared space, with words as us, and invite you to continue the conversation.
Lois Spangler is a writer, editor, and translator who’s been making stuff up since 1976. When not knee-deep in words, she’s hanging out with friends or stabbing other friends in an historically Spanish style. She maintains a very infrequently updated blog at storytrade.net, and sometimes says things on Twitter as @Incognitiously. Learn more about that historical Spanish style at bsis.club.