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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Olesen

The Words We Write

Photo by Logan Thomas.

The raindrops fall like small water bombs on the pavement. Their splash reminiscent of the dust clouds from explosions. “Rain in war zones,” I scribble down in my little notebook. Its leather is a walnut color strung tight around the hard cover that protects the unlined pages from getting crunched up. The note is next to a drawing of a candle with its flame twisting the air on the page. I close it, a finger resting on the noted page. I look up and out the window of the coffee shop. The gloomy grey sky relieves itself outside and I sip my Nicaraguan coffee. I imagine myself in Afghanistan, wandering the dry valleys crested with mountains. The vegetation sparse, but tough. When the rain falls, the rain drops bomb the landscape and feather the hard surface with strokes of green. The water a relief from the dry, hot spring, and welcomed by soldiers and natives alike.

“Interviews + photos,” I write under the initial note. Tell the full story. Your words are not the only ones that matter if you’re telling someone else’s truth. And there are many truths in the world that need to be told. There are many truths we need to hear and understand. “Walk a mile in someone’s shoes” is a cliché for a reason.

Something rough and cold touches the back of my neck; it sends shock shivers through my body and my neck snaps backwards. My right hand flies to swat away the intruder.

“Jeez! Chill, girl!” Jacob, a friend of mine, says.

“You canNOT just sneak up on me like that!” Although my tone is light, I’m very serious. Half-laughing, I try to cover tension in my voice.

As he sits down beside me on a stool, Jacob laughs and apologizes. His eyes mild with good intentions and he chats up a conversation. I watch him as we talk. The fluidity of his movements showcase the many hours he spends in the gym. Our bodies betray us with their language, characterize us and signal our lives unwillingly. I know my mother’s mood by the sound of her footsteps. When my father’s head is slightly tilted back, his skulls resting on the top vertebrae, he’s tired. “An essay on body language,” I note below the previous scribbles.

I look up and Jacob is smiling at me. “You know you go into your own world sometimes,” he says. I laugh, embarrassed, shooting my shoulders forward as to retract into my own shell.

Roxana Robinson wrote that she writes to free herself, that she writes about things that trouble her. As writers, I think we have voices inside of us that need to find their own stories to tell. They look through our eyes and ingest situations differently, and then they digest it and out comes our stories. I cannot go a day without those voices whispering ideas, quotes, titles, questions, or observations to me.

But then comes the hard part. To turn the whispers to understanding, and then turning understanding to text is a hard, laborious process. How do you describe the movement of a leaf as it falls from a tree in the autumn in a way that communicates the transformation from life to death? How do you explain the loss of a child when you’ve never been a parent? How do understand the fear of getting shot by the police if your privilege has kept it from you? As writers, that is our job. To create understanding where there former was none. We create stories that make situations accessible.

Reading is part of this process for writers. This has been chiseled into my skull through my four years as creative writing student at Georgia College. “You have to read to be a great writer” has been on repeat and it has finally sunk in. Much like a mathematician, a doctor, or a lawyer should read the latest journals on theories or procedures or laws, a writer should read to expand their knowledge of language. Language in its ever changing way is an organism that develops as we do, and as writers we have the power to be a part of that change.

James Salter wrote in his essay “Once Upon A Time, Literature. Now What?” that “in the richness of language, its grace, breadth, dexterity, lies its power. To speak with clarity, brevity and wit is like holding a lightning rod.” It is the impact of words. It is the craters we can leave, the dents we can make against hate and ignorance. That is what drives me to labor with my writing so it can become an agent of change. It is hard in the current world of Weinsteins and Trumps, not to desire change in humanity.

But this challenge to change the world seems daunting, if not impossible. Maybe because our problems seem so great they become unconquerable. Finding a solution to overpopulation, climate change, homelessness, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc. becomes so overwhelming at the age of twenty-four. So I’ve decided to start small. Because the next great novel to win the Nobel Literature Prize won’t flow from my fingers overnight, neither will it come to me if I stare at the empty word document on my computer.

Instead I will write love notes to my family. Practice writing postcards that are interesting. Put time and effort into Christmas cards, and make birthday wishes special. I want the people closest to me to feel loved, because the absence of love isn’t hate, it’s loneliness. We live in a world increasingly connected by electronics, yet we could go days without talking to an actual person. While it is impossible to be everywhere at once, maybe a well written letter will feed the fire and keep the dark loneliness away.

Instead I will also write my own loneliness away. Because you can’t help someone get from point A to point B if your own car is broken. What I write will be greasy and dirty and hidden under the hood, but it will keep my engine running, repairing old damage along the way and trying to do maintenance where there’s a little wear-and-tear.

And as I write, my writing will get better. Practice makes perfect, and as a perfectionist this has tremendous appeal to me. Although, this will also make for another challenge. Just this month I received my first letter of rejection from a journal. How does someone striving to be perfect deal with rejection? Better than expected, I’ll tell you that. As writer, every piece I send out for publication is a brain child that has been conceived, carried to term, birthed and nursed. It is a part of me I send for other to judge. It would be hard for anyone not to take the rejection personally. But my mother told me that with the first child you baby it, overstimulate it, make sure to boil the pacifier if it’s dropped to the ground. With the second child, you help and stimulate it, but you just give the pacifier a quick rinse when dropped. With the third child, you simply suck any dirt off the pacifier and pop it back into the child’s mouth. It gets easier with practice, both writing well and getting rejected.

Once my writing can, I would like it to deal with social issues. It’s a heavy weight and requires good writing. It demands that the writer is attentive to issues over long periods of time and learns the history and vocabulary at the center. Social issues necessitate research and involvement, but also personal investment. As a writer you have to care to write well. You have to open your heart and let in the pain of others to show it to the world. Your writing has to reflect the pain and deal with it in all its horrific honesty. And honest writing is hard, because it forces an honest voice and honest emotions and thoughts. It cannot be dressed up pretty or hidden behind a layer of sugar. You have to face the ugly truths and taste the bitterness at times when it’s so much easier to run away.

I taste the bitterness of my black coffee, no sugar or crème to cover it up. As the plastic lid leaves my lips, I see a friend walk by the window. Our eyes meet and she a smile spreads on her face as she waves. I smile back at her. It’s quite incredible how a smile seems to command a smile in return. The scent of coffee snakes its way to my nose again and I close my eyes. A scent so singular it always pushes my pleasure buttons. Its simplicity brings out memories from years past. A back alley in Istanbul takes shape but morphs into wooden chairs on the wide expanse of a beach. Yet I set here, on stool in a small town in America, and open my eyes to put down the cup.

I run my fingers over my walnut colored notebook. My middlefinger following the indentation of the symbols on the front. The potential is here in the unlined pages of my walnut colored notebook. It is the words we write that hold the power to create empathy, to illustrate hardship, to illuminate the dark issues and bring to light the broken spirits. The words we write can become vehicles for other people’s futures, propellers that make the planes take flight and get us off the ground to see things from high above and get the bigger picture. The words we write can become a latter that will save someone in a hole. The words we write have the power to change lives, to change the world.

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