The Magic of Words

Posted Oct 5 2010, 9:00 am in

I love The X-Files nearly as much as I love chocolate. In an episode called Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, Jose Chung, played by Charles Nelson Reilly, delivered this thought-provoking line:

Still, as a storyteller, I’m fascinated how a person’s sense of consciousness can be… so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words. Mere words.

The episode aired in 1996 and that line has stuck with me ever since. Words hold the power we writers get to brandish. I have spent hours trying on and then discarding word after word until I finally captured the right meaning, emotion, cadence, and theme. Writers string words together in just the right ways and voila, the end result isn’t just a book, it’s a story that hijacks my imagination for a little while, transports me to places I’ve never been (a dusty circus in Texas, perhaps?) – or indeed, that don’t exist (Ruby Jane’s coffee shop?), even experienced things I’ve never done (had sex with forks stuck in my back).*

Words excite, delight, taunt and haunt us. They inspire and too often, fail us.  Are all writers enthralled with words? These recent tweets say yes:

You know what word I like? Poppycock. (Trisha Leigh)

Then, last night, a single word popped up in the middle of the first sentence I was trying on for size, and boom, we’re in business. I love this word so much I want to bring it to the vet, spay it, and keep it on my desk. It’s not an unusual word, or a feroegn word. It’s just the right damn word in the right damn place, and I can’t wait to explore it. (Jeff Somers)

Words in the wrong hands – er, forgive me – out of the wrong mouths – embarrass us (George Bush), entertain us (Sarah Palin), even provoke us (Wesley Scroggins). They have the power to hurt (“I hate you!) as well as to heal (“I’m sorry!”).

But I think the greatest potential words have is the ability to change someone’s mind. That’s their true magic.  Can you think of a time when reading a story changed your perception… transformed your sense of consciousness?  I’d love to hear about it.

The Power of Words

Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!
Life is in them, and death. A word can send
The crimson colour hurrying to the cheek.
Hurrying with many meanings; or can turn
The current cold and deadly to the heart.
Anger and fear are in them; grief and joy
Are on their sound; yet slight, impalpable:–
A word is but a breath of passing air

Letitia Landon

* The dusty circus in Texas and having sex with forks stuck in his back are scenes painted with words by Sean Ferrell in NUMB. Ruby Jane’s coffee house belongs to Bill Cameron, a setting so vivid, I could smell it.



2 responses to “The Magic of Words”

  1. I know exactly what you mean about the power words have to shape and inspire us. In fact, I got the idea for my current wip after i’d read an ee cummings poem…which is quite surprising considering I’ve never really cared for poetry…well, except for a naughty limerick or two :)

  2. Yes. Madeleine L’Engle’s books were consciousness-transforming, when I was younger.