Why Words Matter, and How to Rewrite Them

Today’s guest post comes from Ritu Kaushal, the author of the memoir  The Empath’s Journey, which TEDx speaker Andy Mort calls “a fascinating insight into the life of a highly sensitive person and emotional empath.” Ritu was recently awarded the silver medal at the prestigious REX awards, instituted by the United Nations & iCONGO in India, and given to people creating social impact through their work. Ritu writes about highly sensitive creatives on her blog Walking Through Transitions. Her work has been featured on Sensitive Evolution, Tiny Buddha, and Elephant Journal, amongst others.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones.
But words will never hurt me.”

When I was younger, I used to think this rhyme was true. At the very least, I thought I “should” try to live up to it. I “should” try to not let people’s words affect me, not let their jagged edges leave me cut and bleeding. After all, they were just words.

But the older I get, the more I think the opposite is true.

It’s easier for many of us to heal more quickly from physical wounds than to separate ourselves from the sting of words. Words dissolve quickly. They are amorphous. We don’t often acknowledge their power and, so, negative words can worm their way into our hearts. They can even cause us to turn against ourselves.

As a writer, every day, I become more and more conscious of the power of words. Words can heal, and words can break.

As artists working with these potent tools, we yield a specific kind of power. And one way in which we can make a difference through our writing is in how we use our words to frame experiences.

I will talk about my own personal experiences as a heterosexual woman and the words that make me uncomfortable here. I know that depending on your context, you will have your own specific examples. My hope is that some of these examples will help you think of what bothers you and either banish those words or contextualize them in your own writing.

Be Conscious of Words that Minimize Women’s Experiences

Growing up in India, I often heard the term “eve teasing” used a lot. It was a blanket term for different forms of public sexual harassment that Indian women go through every day. It included pretty much everything from suggestive remarks and catcalls to sexual aggression like groping in buses and trains. It’s only bit by bit that I started realizing how much of a euphemism this term is. It’s a minimizer that blurs the lines and places the blame squarely on the woman — as misogynistic words do — with Eve referring to the interpretation of Eve as a temptress in the Bible.

Eve teasing seems to insinuate seduction even though that’s the exact opposite of the truth. No 16-year-old girl who is being grabbed at is teasing or seducing anybody. Of course, this is a culture-specific term used in India and other South Asian countries. But the thinking behind this term is something women all over the world experience every day. Our hurt, our anger, our rage is minimized. We are told to not make a big deal about “little” things. We are told, “men will be men.” Language is used to blunt the raw force of our feelings. So, it’s up to us when we have the opportunity as writers to rewrite the language we come across, to frame words that harm us, to clear out the weeds that choke our true stories.

What terms and words make you feel angry and hurt or that confuse you because they seem to have a double meaning? That’s a clue to a word that hides and demeans, not illuminates.

Admit Missteps and Take Other People’s Feedback into Account

Many years ago, I approached someone to do an interview for my site. She went through my online work and declined partly because of this quote I had included in an article. It’s by Alan Watts: “Wonder is not a disease. Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons.” I had resonated with this quote a lot. I still do. To me, it speaks of how imagination is devalued by a lot of people. So, when she came back with her feedback, at that time, I felt defensive. I had reached out and she had “rejected” me. I was, in fact, the last person to discriminate against women. Wasn’t she overreacting? My intention and focus had been on the “wonder” part, not on the use of the word “man” to denote all humankind.

While this made me defensive in the beginning, as I thought about this over time, my sense of it evolved. I realized that she hadn’t “overreacted” but instead had had a strong response because a value she held dear had been violated. I was exactly like her in other areas of my life. Words mattered to me. In this case, I was genuinely on the same page as her but had missed the chance to connect because of the words I had used. As a writer, my job was to communicate as clearly as possible, so there was no scope for misunderstanding. So, I decided that unless there was a specific reason for doing so, I wouldn’t use quotes like this. Her courage to give me feedback made me a better writer.

Of course, there are nuances involved here. For example: I love a lot of Carl Jung’s work and although the title of his book Man and his Symbols is decidedly sexist, I, of course, can’t change that when I talk about it. Or let’s take another example. Let’s say you are writing about characters who live in a rural Asian village. The fact is they would use some terms that modern urban people think of as sexist. They might call a female doctor a lady doctor instead of simply a doctor because she is the first woman who is also a doctor that they have personally encountered. It’s a “fact of note” in the context of their lives. As writers, our job is not to strip away all the biases or worldviews of our characters, but instead to contextualize them. I might use “eve teasing” in a dialogue but can also take care to show how the character starts relating to the word and resisting it.

Am I perpetuating a word? Am I causing it to live on? Or am I calling it out? What exactly am I doing?

Words that Limit Women also Limit Men

In his beautiful book on writing, Drinking from the River of Light, Mark Nepo talks about how the opposite of rational is not irrational, but intuitive. These are two ways of relating to the world, and they are both important and valid. They are the yin and the yang that the universe is made of. When we call women irrational, we are discounting the power of intuitive knowing, which resides not only in women but also in men. And when we say that women are emotional, we cut ourselves off from thinking about how both men and women can channel emotions appropriately and inappropriately.

In these quarantine times, when we hear that domestic abuse cases have risen, we obviously know that some men are expressing the emotion of anger in a destructive, wounding way. But in news stories, we rarely, if ever, hear these men being called “emotional.” So, words like emotional, hormonal, moody are suspect word choices. What exactly do we mean when we use them? The context matters. Who is saying these words matters. And in the end, the world is not divided into two camps that are pitted against each other — the rational and the intuitive. Both these threads run through all of us. Combining both these threads is what makes us whole. Combining these threads is what makes us human.

As writers, we know intuitively that words are not just words. Words are important because they are energy. They are ways to join the seen and the unseen world. They are the form that makes the unconscious conscious.
They can also become a smokescreen that hides things.

So, words are swords—sometimes a sword that can cut us deep, and sometimes, a sword of light that can cut through our blocks.

How can we use them well? How can we yield the power we have so that it lights up our path, instead of collapsing into the darkness?

Ritu Kaushal is the author of the memoir  The Empath’s Journey, which TEDx speaker Andy Mort calls “a fascinating insight into the life of a highly sensitive person and emotional empath.” Ritu was recently awarded the silver medal at the prestigious REX awards, instituted by the United Nations & iCONGO in India, and given to people creating social impact through their work. Ritu writes about highly sensitive creatives on her blog Walking Through Transitions. Her work has been featured on Sensitive Evolution, Tiny Buddha, and Elephant Journal, amongst others. Connect with Ritu on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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