I recently wrote a foreword for my friend Paul Jun‘s excellent eBook, Building an Empire with Words, which is a great little manifesto on the importance of words. Here's what I wrote (with a few minor edits):
Your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine.
—The Civil Wars
The first time I realized the impact of my words, I was six years old. I called my mom a #@$%**. I spent the rest of the evening with a bar of soap in my mouth.
The second time I understood how powerful speech could be, I was thirteen. I told Mom she was a piece of $#!^ and that she could go straight to #*%%. I believe once again I had a healthy supper of Dove and Zest.
But the third time was, as they say, a charm. A few years after my love for four-letter words faded, I discovered the impact of the written word. And it changed my life.
I was in high school and had procrastinated my final writing assignment for senior English.
It was a book report on Rudyard Kipling's Kim. The piece was written in three parts: book review, synopsis of the author's life, and annotated bibliography.
I didn't read the book. I stayed up the night before the report was due, and I cranked out all fifteen pages pretty effortlessly.
Like most of the students, I turned the project in, expecting a B. This particular teacher was renowned for never giving As.
A few weeks later, long after I had forgotten about the paper and started planning for college, I received the paper back from my teacher. It was full of red marks. I sighed, eagerly flipping to the last page, worried the grade might be much lower than a B.
Then, I saw it. In bright, red pen:
95% — A
And below that wonderful number were these words: “You really should consider a career as a professional writer or journalist.”
I was stunned. Shocked. In awe.
I flipped through the paper again and noticed many of the red marks were exclamations. “This is excellent!” and “Well done!” Of course, there were plenty of critical remarks, too. (She was an English teacher, after all.)
Later in life, whenever I felt lost and far from my destiny, I would pull out that paper, read those affirming words, and grin.
My whole life is full of words. Great words. Awful ones. All my regrets and triumphs can be traced back to something I said or did not say. I am learning — slowly and honestly — how important these pieces of language can be. Not just for communication, but life.
Now, as I finally get serious about a writing career — nearly a decade after receiving that paper back from my English teacher — I'm finding that words can be a means of living. In the past year, I've gotten a book deal, been published in numerous magazines, and started landing speaking gigs. All because of words.
Of course, I've known this all along — that words can bring life or death. For the longest time, I chose death. I gossiped and slandered and memorized dirty words. Because I thought that made me cool, made me a man.
All the while, I misunderstood something crucial to life: Words are supposed to mean something. They're also supposed to be a means to something. And I took that for granted.
For far too long, I thought the more words I used, the better. I thought the more extreme they were, the more people would listen. Only now as I finally begin to grow up a little do I realize that with most things — especially language — less is more.
If you're reading this, I hope you understood two important lessons:
- Your words matter — probably more than you realize.
- You have a responsibility to make them count. Don't squander this opportunity like I did for so many years (and as some do their whole lives).
Remember: It's not just what you say that matters, but how you say it.
Take care, be intentional, and write like you mean it.
How have you seen the impact of words in your life? Share in the comments.
*Photo credit: Craig Dennis (Creative Commons)