Our Words Matter

Saturday, September 08, 2018
Not long ago, I was watching a news show. One of the spots focused on a family who had a wall around their house painted like a Van Gogh painting.

The city where they lived was prepared to fine them: $250 a day until it reached the value of their home. They were told, "The wall must match the house."

You guessed it. The family did exactly what they were told to do. Instead of painting the wall to match the traditional (white) house, they painted the house, transforming it into a huge Van Gogh canvas.

Now, the house and wall is a tourist attraction. It inspires people to the point that when the family was still battling their city council, a little girl offered her allowance to help pay the fine. You can see the whole piece here.

 As writers, we search for the perfect words. The perfect word combination. The perfect rhythm of strung-together words. This story made me think of how often I go back and tweak my writing by changing a word here or a phrase there. But why? Why do I read what I wrote the day before and delete, as I look up at the ceiling and ponder what I should replace it with?

I search for the right words for a few reasons:

  • The thoughts/words are out of character. It's said that if you know your character well, if you want your reader to know your character well, as an author you should know what they have in their pocket/pocketbook. Likewise, you should know what words would come out of their mouth and what thoughts are in their head.
          I'm currently tweaking  reworking  rewriting  slogging through a major revision of my WIP. It's
          historical fiction. And the narrator is a 12-year old boy.

          Often, I reread what I've written and wonder. Is this what a young man would say? What would
          a kid worry about at this point? What understandings is a 12-year old capable of?

          The right words make a difference.
  • The story's gotten down and dirty. When I'm just getting the story down and not worried about how it's worded and not concerned about the lack of imagery, I consider that "down and dirty." There are rare times when my brain is working more furiously than my fingers on the keyboard, and I need to get down the plot before it evaporates, before it's forgotten. Later, I need to revise because I'm worried about the wording. Then, I can try to make the words sing.
          The right words can paint a picture.
  • The story needs to make an impact. I recently submitted a personal essay to The Sun. It focuses on a friend whose daughter suffered from postpartum psychosis. It was a famous case in our city. She bought a gun and a couple of days later, she killed her husband, her baby girl and then herself.
          Before I even considered submitting it, I shared it with my friend. After reading it, she gave 
          a few suggestions, along with her blessing. Over a cup of coffee, one of the first things she said
          was, "You began it in a strange way, but it works. It lured me right into the story."

           I began the story the way I was drawn into the story. I smelled a particular odor--one that I 
           immediately identified with--and that was the only beginning I ever considered. 

           The right combination of words can heal. Did reading my essay heal my friend and completely
           erase the unimaginable sorrow she's experiencing? Certainly not. However, if when my friend
           tells her family's story and it helps another new mother... If my story's published and can make
           families more knowledgeable when it comes to postpartum depression... Well, that would be a 
           powerful and satisfying impact, in my opinion.

As a writer of words, as a tinkerer of phrases, continue to be vigilant. Keep watch over your words. The right words can make a difference.

Sioux Roslawski is a teacher, a mom, a grammy (the best title she's ever had), a dog rescuer and a freelance writer. She retired from public school teaching but couldn't give up teaching and was immediately drawn back into the classroom. She's currently working on a middle grades manuscript (34,000 words Baby!) and is a slacker blogger on Sioux's Page.


Joanne said...

I love this, Sioux. The story of the house, how you used it to make your points, and your points and your examples. I hope your piece makes it into THE SUN. It's an important issue. Glad you are telling the story and that you got your friend's input, and your friend is okay with it.

Angela Mackintosh said...

I just spent my morning tweaking words, word painting, and totally agree! I LOVE the story of the Van Gogh house. I hadn't heard of that; thank you for sharing. In our accountability group, you mentioned submitting to The Sun but you didn't tell us about the story! Sioux, what an important, powerful story and issue. I'm sorry that happened to your friend's daughter and family. It's amazing that your friend could even provide feedback, and I'm glad she gave you her blessing. I'm crossing my fingers and toes that they publish it! It sounds like a piece that needs to be out there and will help a lot of people.

Renee Roberson said...


Thank you for sharing the story of the Van Gogh house with us. I loved it. I"m also crossing my fingers for you on The Sun submission, and know an important piece like that will find a home no matter what. Postpartum psychosis is real and I can't imagine having to go through what your friend and family did.

You are so right. Our words matter. Not only do the have the power to heal others, they have the power to help us heal ourselves.

Sioux Roslawski said...

J. Glenn--Thanks, and thanks for the good thoughts. I'm keeping my fingers crossed as well.

Angela--It is one of those rare stories that almost literally wrote itself. I hope it gets published either in The Sun or elsewhere.

Renee--Believe it or not, I'm friends with another couple whose daughter also experienced postpartum psychosis. Their daughter killed three children. (She's been in an Illinois prison for 29 years.) It definitely is real...

Margo Dill said...

I love that story at the beginning of this piece! :)

Mary Horner said...

I just watched the 2015 Toastmaster's Championship speech titled "Words Matter." There are so many good examples, which makes our job as writers all the more important. Thanks for sharing, and good luck with The Sun, a great publication!

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