Words are powerful: so have I said the right thing?

I had just finished my midterm in American literature survey class and was headed out the door. The professor stopped me. “I was very impressed with your paper for American novel class. For someone who’s burnt out on school, you write like a whiz. It’s impressive.”

Then he added, “You have a real gift for writing, Laura.”

It was my ninth straight semester of college; I had gone year-round since transferring to this university, and I hadn’t had more than three weeks off at a time. Since arriving at UAH, I had battled an eating disorder, struggled with my moods, gotten sick with mono, all while dealing with a full class load of tough courses.

That semester, I had four upper level English classes (including a graduate one with an infamously tough professor) and “Greek and Roman Art and Theater,” which was essentially a literature and art history class rolled into one excruciatingly difficult class. I was mentally exhausted and unsure if my papers even made sense, much less deserved an A.

I remember standing there looking at the professor’s kind face, seeing the sincerity in his eyes, and feeling not only encouraged but affirmed as a writer. It was exactly what I needed to hear at precisely that point in time.

I’ve had this happen many times over the years. My ninth grade English teacher wrote me a note on my first essay: you have a way with words. A man respected in the publishing field emailed me that while my novel was awfully depressing (true!), I had great storytelling skills.  A friend on my writing review site told me that my work was a pleasure to review.

These were words that I needed to hear, encouragement to keep honing my writing craft, even while I faced difficult circumstances and rejection letters and my ever-present fear of cliff diving into the unknown.

Words are powerful: they can divide or unify, they can crush or lift up, they can fight or make peace.

Unfortunately, negative words often make the most lasting impressions. Who among us hasn’t experienced having one mean-spirited remark negate all the affirmations we received?

So why am I so often careless in what I say?

  • Am I too impulsive and quick to click “send” on the email or “reply” on a status update without re-reading my words first?
  • Am I willing to crush another person’s spirit, create division, unnecessarily arouse anger, just because I’m right and they’re wrong?
  • Am I simply not thinking?

I’m a writer. I use words the same way a composer uses notes on sheet music: to express my vision of the world, to tap into universal emotions and experiences, to point to truth in a way that compels others to see it, too. I can write a symphony or I can write a cacophony of clashing notes that makes other cringe and cover their ears.

I’m responsible for each and every word that comes both from my mouth and my pen.

Each time I post a Facebook status update, comment on someone’s status or a blog post, write a blog or review a piece of writing, I struggle with whether I have said the right thing. I started this post yesterday, looked at the two hundred words I had written, and deleted them; I’ve done this many, many times. I don’t want to write something that impacts people negatively.

“Just because you can say something doesn’t mean that you should.”

–a teenage Facebook friend

Words mean so much. The encouragement I’ve received from others, about my writing and other things as well, has given me strength to continue on my journey.

Encourage or discourage?

Restore or destroy?

Confront out of love and concern or criticize out of bitterness, self-righteousness, or hatred?

My words can do any of these things.

Now I have to choose.


2 thoughts on “Words are powerful: so have I said the right thing?

  1. I’m getting “Do what I can to do the best that I can, then stop,” from this post. Is that a fair finding? If so, thank you! (And, if not, I still suggest you pass the thanks on to where it’s due. 😉

    Maybe I’m just projecting, but I sense between the lines of this post a strong under-current of self-condemnation. If I’m mistaken, please disregard the rest of this missive.

    If not, Laura, I have so much empathy for you (and sympathy with you). James 4:17 (“So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.”) would ch-thunk into my head, and then I’d worry/fret/self-judge over my (in)actions for months. Years.

    Even when I fear that it’s just worthless rubble, I should “kill my darlings” by letting go. By letting go of the work, I’m trusting God with the seemingly-impossible task of turning what seems to me as ugly into the beautiful.

    A recently discovered antidote to that anxiety (just now, in fact) is
    1 Timothy 4:15 Take pains with these things; be absorbed in them, so that everyone will see your progress. 4:16 Be conscientious about how you live and what you teach. Persevere in this, because by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you.

    Another interpretation of James 4:17 is “One who dwells in the house of hate who sees a place for beauty, but does not fill that place with beauty, to that one, the place is ugly.”

    (So, whether turning my stones to bread, or making my rocks declare his glory, it’s God who finishes the work?)


    1. Hi, Michael-
      I think that it would be pretty fair to say “do what I can to do the best that I can…” I actually don’t think of this post as self-condemnation, though I can see how it would come across as such. I just know that it’s really easy for me to write something that is inappropriate/unkind/unnecessary and disregard the consequences if the writing gets into the wrong hands. I’ve been the brunt of some pretty hurtful words, and said some extremely hurtful words myself, and it’s taken me a long to forgive the hurter (myself or the other person); so I can definitely appreciate your encouragement to let go.

      I just wanted to encourage others to think before writing something. It’s so easy now with all the social media to write something and hurt many, many people, intentionally or not. It was also a reminder to me how I need to be responsible as a writer!


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