Yesterday I learned new words to name something I experienced. Whenever that happens, I also have a new way of looking at the world. Certain parts of my life start to make more sense.
However, there’s one problem with this new knowledge: I don’t have a language to talk about the experience yet. I might have a name or a title, but I’m still wrapping my head around the larger subject, and finding and learning new language with which to talk about it.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. I’ve had many other instances where I learn new language to talk about something I’ve just begun to understand. I write the words down. I use them in sentences. When I start learning new words for common but unspoken experiences, I think of my grandmother who died of cancer when I was 25. When she was going through radiation treatment, I visited her at my uncle’s house in Virginia where he, his wife, and one of my cousins (who is a nurse) took care of her. I noticed on the lamp beside the chair my grandmother sat in that she had written the word “radiation” in red capital letters and taped it to the stem of the lamp. This might have been her way of getting used to the new vocabulary that was being used in her life and a way to understand what she was going through. My grandmother loved words and knew their power, and this one was so powerful she needed time to get her mind around it.
I think it’s the same when we’re writing new work. For me, new poems always feel raw and unsettled. They haven’t found their voice yet, and I think that voice has a lot to do with figuring out how to write about a subject I’m still trying to understand. When I’m writing about a subject for the first time, I read a lot about the subject. I learn new vocabulary and ways of describing images or objects. I also read books written about the subject to understand how another poet or writer wrote about it. Of course, I’m pretty hard on myself during this process, too: I seem to think I should already know how to write about this subject, but that’s not true. It’s never true. Writing is a process of discovery: we write about what we want to understand so we can communicate what we’ve learned. We add to that knowledge as we learn how to write about it.
My grandmother had the right idea: she wrote down the words she wanted to learn and understand. She loved definitions and completed a crossword puzzle everyday because she loved learning about the world through language. That’s why we writers work with words: they’re one of the best ways for us to understand and communicate our experience.
I hope that words bring you to an understanding you haven’t met before. I hope the same for myself.