Word Power: Watch What You Say

January 19th, 2011 | Category: Essays

When I was six years old, I propped a 2×4 up on a brick in our driveway and jumped my Evel Knievel Signature Schwinn Stingray a few inches less than a foot off the ground. My grandfather saw me trying to achieve escape velocity and told me to keep it up, that it would “earn me some money one day.” Well, I’m still pedaling toward inclined planes attempting to leave the earth’s surface, but I’ve never earned a dime doing it. The point is not my inability to parlay my propensity for doing dumb stuff on my bike into a career, but that the things we say to each other often have long-lasting impacts we could never anticipate. The smallest utterances can shape a person’s life.

Language leaves lips for lines and spins through circuits
We send and receive and talk in circles
When we leave and the circles are broken
What happens to all the words we’ve spoken?

Riding BMX got me into making zines. I saw an article on them in FREESTYLIN’ Magazine and decided I wanted to do one. When I wasn’t riding my bike, I’d be in my room with photos, Sharpies, and gluesticks, cutting and pasting my visions on half-folded eight and a half by eleven pieces of paper.* During one of those sessions, my dad told me I should work for a magazine. I ended up doing just that (and the web equivalent) for several years.

If I were forced to pick a single answer to the question “what do you do?” I would probably say I’m a writer, though I never did well on writing assignments in school. In spite of my placement in advanced classes, I scored poorly throughout high school on writing-related projects. Hell, I made C’s in both English 101 and 102, but In my second-to-last semester of undergrad, one of my instructors complimented my writing. We had done several in-class essays in her Abnormal Psychology class, and one day she pulled me aside and told me what a good writer I was. This came as a surprise, given my previous track record and the fact that I’d been an Art major for my first three years of college. Regardless, it stuck with me. I took a class on writing for social science research the next semester, and though I barely made a B, I felt more at home researching and writing than I ever had trying to do traditional art. I give the credit for my newfound confidence to my Abnormal Psychology teacher.

When I moved away from Seattle the first time, I used to keep in touch with local cable access celebrity the Reverend Bruce Howard (you can find clips of his ranting on YouTube). Once, during a long-distance phone conversation with him from Alabama, he interrupted himself and told me out of the blue that I had a great speaking voice and that I should use it. I’d never really thought about it because, as you know from hearing your own voice on recordings, I thought I sounded weird, but coming from such a dynamic speaker, it made me rethink it. I have since become an instructor and a regular public speaker. Part of my having the self-assurance to make this leap was Rev. Howard’s comment.

These are all positive examples, but it works both ways. In communication studies classes, we teach that communication is irreversible. Once you put something out there, you can’t take it back (I always think of the courtroom scenes where they strike something from the written record even though everyone in attendance already heard it). As the above examples illustrate, in butterfly effects of the word, even the smallest comment can leave a lasting impression. Be careful what you say to your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and others around you. Your words can have impacts you never imagined.

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* So fervent was my zine-making that I got a copy machine for my high school graduation present. I still have one, and I do still make zines once in a while.

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