I had a Chinese pen pal when I was in middle school. Her penmanship was meticulous. I tried to imitate it. I think handwriting is the most organic yet undervalued art—the kind most of us are capable of and don’t even realize it. You can tell such an honest story with it. It doesn’t have the affectations of most of the art we see hanging on the hallowed walls of galleries and museums. Words can be like that too.
My friend and I were joking that there are words among Black folk that are organically perfect. They just happen. In the process of just happening, they are honest and direct. And beautiful. Like when your grandmother asks you for “some sugar.” It’s sweet; it’s musical. And she warns you not to get on “that stuff.” Her directive is just as illustrative as any DARE presentation or a “this is your brains on drugs” commercial.
My favorites come from my dad. He “hopes forty cents” in shock or exclamation. It goes something like this: “Hey Daddy, when I was trying to back the car up,” voice wavering, “I accidentally rubbed the white walls against the curb.” “Well, I hope fo’ty cents! I just polished them tiyahs (trans. = tires) this mo’ning (trans.=morning).” (After nearly 50 years north of the Mason-Dixon, my dad’s never lost his accent).
Folks do not have diabetes, they have “sugar.” And they don’t have surgery, they “go under the knife.” We rely on the “clicker” to change the channel on the television. All who suffer from any stage or style of mental illness are classified as “not right.” A homosexual is as easily described as “funny.” An adulterer is said to be “running” when s/he has an outside relationship, and a well dressed person is “clean” (emphasis on the “c” so that you have 2 syllables as in “kah-lean”). To be “stone” kah-lean just means that he’s more clean than average, like very clean.
I fell in love with language long before I had any personal experience with anything even related to falling in love. Love, I’m inclined to believe, is like that feeling I got. In the fairness of full disclosure, I have to admit that I am a bit of a novice in matters of falling in love. I only assume it must be similar. It must happen naturally and in that naturalness, without presumption, naked, and therefore compelled to be honest, it’s a beautiful experience. When writers choose words that are not that; forcing them, or dressing them up in fine clothes to take to town they lose that beauty. They might look good for the time, but strip them. And you’re gonna find that there’s either nothing to see because they are empty or else what remains is just not all that attractive.
The goal of writing—at least for those of us who claim to sincerely love it; to love words—should be to let them be beautiful. By themselves. Let them be honest. Let them come. Because they will come. When they are not harnessed and corralled and dressed up in peacock feathers to get attention, you can best believe that is just the time when they will capture attention. Some of us who claim to be writers seem not to really love the words that much. Words, for us, are like lovers we’re not exactly in love with. We just like their company or what they do for us or are just using them to pass the time. If that’s the case, my humble advice would be to just let ‘em go. Somebody else will treat them right.