How often have you said, read or heard one of the above this year? They seem to encapsulate everything 2016 will be remembered for, alluding to the inadequacy of language to convey the full force of shock, outrage, disillusionment, at one event after another. The irony is that we cannot even express that without words.
And yet, we all know the power of words: to speak of love, to make someone laugh, to create bonds, to tell stories. Growing up, I lived in the same village as my grandparents and my Nan was fond of the platitude ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me’. It always amazed me that any grown-up could believe this. Even the most casual put-down, or mildly sexist or racist remark can cause lasting hurt (I bet we all have a few stingers we can’t forget), never mind the major damage of rhetoric calculated to breed division and conflict.
When real life is so confusing and depressing, the value of fiction and other invented worlds is sometimes called into question. Whilst many see books as a safe and reassuring place to escape to, in a favourite story or one which promises to be uplifting, others are prompted to dismiss the whole enterprise of ‘making things up’ as frivolous and superficial. (Note to public figures: you lose me the instant you say anything like this.)
Unsurprisingly, I disagree with the latter view unless the alternative is to roll up your sleeves and actually do something to change the world. Different genres offer different experiences, obviously, but the kind of fiction I enjoy most draws on some aspect of truth as perceived/portrayed by the author. It makes me feel connected and opens my eyes and my heart to other places, people and situations, some I recognise, some far beyond my personal experience. Without people brave enough to write about war, slavery, trafficking, etc, I would know little or nothing about them. Fiction fosters empathy and understanding – it is also the only place I can broach that which would be unsayable anywhere else.
I recently spent four days on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset on a wonderful retreat hosted by Amanda Saint and Jane Elmor of Retreat West. Most of my daylight hours were spent on long strenuous walks along this spectacularly scenic coastline thinking about my next book – looking at the pictures you can imagine my delight, as someone ‘weather-dependent’. A very talented and committed group of writers were present and although I didn’t take part in the self-editing sessions led by Debi Alper, I got to hear about their promising works-in-progress. And when it came to delivering the pilot of the workshop on Perseverance and Motivation for Writers, which I will be rolling out next year with author and psychologist Voula Grand, I couldn’t have wished for a more willing and engaged audience.
We talked a lot about resilience and hope, honesty and doing what you believe in, and how so much of what matters in writing is applicable to life in general. If you’ve been feeling there are no words, I hear what you’re saying. All my life I’ve been excited and slightly terrified of what words can do; if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to handle them with care.
How do you feel about words?
Next week I will be unveiling the first quarterly SOFA SPOTLIGHT, featuring six fantastic and very diverse titles which have recently made a huge impression on me. Do come back on THURSDAY 17 NOVEMBER to find out more…