Words as Weapons

Words are a form of action, capable of producing change.
— Ingrid Bengis

For almost two years now, I’ve been involved with an organization called Soldiers’ Angels, which is a non-partisan group that writes mail and sends packages to American soldiers serving “in harm’s way.” Joining was difficult for me, and I did it in part to honor the memory of my grandfather, who was career Army, but also to honor a net-friendship with a man I know through his writings at places like MySpace and OpenDiary. Every so often, he half-jokingly calls me his muse, but in this he was mine, though he probably isn’t aware of it. Or at least, he won’t be until he reads this. If he reads this.

I remember him posting something to the effect of people not actually being able to uphold the tenet, “Love the soldier, not the war,” without the soldier being criticized as well as the situation. I wanted to prove that I could put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. I’ve never believed we should be in Iraq, but I strongly believe that the men and women in our military deserve our respect and support.

I also remember a conversation I had with my grandfather, during Operation Desert Storm, which – wow- was almost twenty years ago, now. She was complaining about people demonstrating against the war, and he, after patiently explaining to her exactly where Kuwait and Iraq and Iran were, and what the point was, finally blew up at her for her whining. “God DAMN it, Esther,” he said, “What do you think we fight for?” He went on to explain that while he didn’t much like the demonstrators either, the fact that they COULD demonstrate was a crucial part of American culture and society.

So what does this have to do with words as weapons?

Think a moment. You’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. You come from a large high school in a major city. You join the military, partly because you know if you survive you’ll get an education, and partly because it’s an escape from the life you know – one with a place to sleep, regular meals, and friends to watch your back, and partly because you want to belong to something.

Maybe your parents just aren’t letter writers. Maybe they don’t want you to serve, for political reasons, or for personal ones. Maybe you don’t even talk to them. You come from a culture of instant communication, email, text, the constant ringing of cell phones…and you’re sent to a foreign country, where you may or may not have email access, but even if you do your time is limited, and phone time is rationed the way water is during a drought, and even if the conditions aren’t that bad for you, you see others coming and going from places where the risk is greater and the conditions considerably worse, and just when you feel most isolated, you get an envelope from a stranger, who says hello, I’m here, and I’m thinking about you, and you’re not alone.

That letter – words upon a page – is a weapon to fight loneliness, and to create a connection.

Saturday at Barnes and Nobel, I picked up the book Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature through Peace and War at West Point, by Elizabeth D. Samet. Samet is a civilian English teacher who has been teaching at the United States Military Academy for nearly ten years, and the book is about the way the study of literature and poetry affects the cadets in her classes.

She mentions the fact that there are some who think teaching poetry to men and women destined to be military leaders is a waste, but that there are others who passionately believe that these men and women need such studies as much or more than the rest of us, because it gives them important insights, fosters creative ideas, teaches them to think, and feeds their souls.

She also mentioned a program begun in World War II, and back in vogue today, of issuing specially sized versions of popular and classic literature designed to fit in a cargo pocket, and distributed among our soldiers. She labels this chapter, “Books as Weapons,” and she’s right.

Words have power. Just as a speech can invigorate and encourage, a good story can spark a new perspective even as it entertains. It can offer escape, or it can be the catalyst to catharsis. A poem can trigger a love of words, or create a verbal picture. And each can offer a connection to the familiar, or to the possible, or both.

Words, and the books which hold them, are weapons against indoctrination, boredom, and stagnation. They curb lonleliness, incite laughter, warm hearts, and expand minds.

Write a letter. Read a book. Scribble a story. Compose a poem. Draft, craft, recite. CREATE.

You’ll be changed.
And you will also be the instrument of change.

Taking it Slow?

How about you? Do you find yourself moving too fast through life? What’s your favorite way to moodle and make the mornin’ last? How does slowing down affect your creativity?
Write on Wednesday

In all honesty, I’m not a fan of “slow,” and find that if I do anything at less than my natural fairly quick pace, at least where writing is concerned, I spend too much time editing or self-censoring, and not enough time actually writing.

On the other hand, I do believe that it’s important to take our special moments and use them to appreciate the finer things in life, so one thing I’m trying to do is write in longhand, even if it’s just once a week.

I’ve always been a pen snob, indeed, a pen whore, and right now my favorite pen is a pink acrylic fountain pen purchased from my twitter-buddy (and all around groovy guy) Richard. Writing with a fountain pen always takes longer than composing at the keyboard – the physics alone dictate this – and I find that the voice I write in when I set literal pen to actual paper is a slower, softer one, more fluid, like the very ink I’m writing with.

Other things I do? I’m a fan of morning coffee being a personal ritual. For me, this means I pour a cup and bring it outside to my patio, where, if it’s not hot, I watch the birds hopping from tree to tree, and enjoy the sparkle of the sun on the water in the pool. I pause to water my plants (Fuzzy killed my tomatoes, but the squash and herbs are faring well), to peer at the trees along the fence and try to spot shy argiopes, the only spiders I actively seek, and I watch my dogs basking in the sun.

As we ease into autumn, and no longer face brutal heat before ten in the morning, I tend to work for a couple of hours then take the dogs for a spin around the block. I like to see what the neighbors are doing with their flowers, and such, and we often sit in the park for a few minutes.

Soon enough, however, I’m back at the keyboard, spinning words so fast that if I stop to think, I’ll lose my rhythm.

Jump Start

In this week’s Write on Wednesday, my friend Becca asks:
So, how about you? Do you ever feel the need to jump start your writing? What drains the energy from your “writing mind”? What do you do when your creative battery dies?

Muses are fickle, and the energy that powers them is equally so. Sometimes, I find excuses not to write, but most of the time the urge is ripped from me by something mundane. I don’t write well when I’m stressed over money, so it’s really a good thing that the whole “starving artist” thing has gone out of style. (The whole black and beret look has, as well, but I don’t care. I like black, and berets work for me.) Other than that, when I’m tired, when I’m hot, when I’m hungry or thirsty before I face the keyboard (as opposed to becoming so during a session, because I’m so absorbed), all those things make me throw up my hands in despair, or they would, if I had the energy to do so.

Most of the time, I can jump-start myself. I’ll re-read part of a favorite novel, watch a few episodes of The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or anything Whedonesque, run through the entire soundtrack of a musical (lately I’ve been alternating Legally Blonde, Rent, and Hairspray, and I’m at the point where I can sing and ride the stationery bike (simultaneously) for the entire first act of the first of those, which, let me tell you, is not easy. (But I love to belt, even though too much belting is really unhealthy.)

When music, books, and other people’s snappy, fast-paced dialogue doesn’t work, I think about cooking, because food and words are completely intertwined in my world. Usually I’ll bake. Tonight, I made enchiladas, which I’d never made before. (I sort of made them up as I went along. They were good. I used grilled chicken that had been marinated in lime juice, garlic salt, and vodka (we were out of tequila).)

When food doesn’t work, which happens when it’s been sunny and hot for too many days in a row, I call on external help. Specifically, there is a collection of friends, who know who they are, who always manage to leave me abuzz with energy and ideas, even if all we talk about is how tired we both are, or what movies we saw the previous weekend.

And if nothing works? Well, sometimes I do have to listen to my body, and sleep even when I know I SHOULD be writing, or finish work before I write something fun, and usually after a few days I’m back in the groove.

Alternatively, I move furniture around…

WOW: The Invisible Picket Fence

Becca, who I count among those “friends as yet unmet in person” is hosting a summer writing roundtable called “Write on Wednesday.” Today is Saturday, but she assures me it’s not a problem, and her first question has been tumbling around my head for a few days.

She asks: “Why in the world do you come to the page?”

At first my answer was flippant and terse: Because I have to.

But it’s a question that deserves more than a four-word answer.

I write to explore, to create, to still the buzzing of ideas in my head, to give other ideas new life. I write because sometimes a conversation overheard on line in the grocery store or in a cafe is just enough to spark a story. I can’t follow a stranger home to observe the next part of their life, but I can imagine what might follow.

Did the mother of the five teenagers like whatever chocolate they chose at Tom Thumb while their harried father gave advice, at nine PM on the Thursday before Mother’s Day? Did the kids get stuff THEY wanted after all? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that there was something about this poor man surrounded by gangly young people trying to make sure his wife had a present from every child without blowing their budget that touched me. He had a story, and I wanted to know more.

Or what about the poet I used to chat with when I was 19 and working at a bookstore/cafe in San Jose? He let me read some of his work, asked me advice on word choice and comma placement, and never guessed that almost twenty years later I’d be thinking of him in his ratty fisherman’s sweater and jeans, scribbling in what I now know was a Moleskine notebook, and sipping slowly on latte after latte, as I worked on my novel. I don’t remember his name, but I remember the angular script he used, and the soft grey of the pencil strokes on the unruled paper.

In one of my favorite books ever, Outside Lies Magic, the author, John Stilgoe, mentions that if you’re riding a bike along-side a picket fence, and manage to find just the right speed, the fence becomes essentially invisible. The rational part of me knows that it’s just an optical illusion, that the fence is as solid as ever, and that the right speed simply synchronizes our active vision with the gaps between the slats, so we’re never looking at solid boards.

The more fanciful part of me – the observer, the writer – that part of me accepts that sometimes you can find magic in ordinary things.

For me, those things are words.

I write so I can see – and share – what’s behind the invisible picket fence.