I used to wonder where all the words came from when I read books, each title logged alphabetically into my secretly coded notebook.
How did words – from the thousands upon thousands of offerings – get selected, sorted and placed next to each other to describe an emotion, object or person to draw them in three dimensions?
How did the writer know which ones to line up side by side, so that removing one would catapult the sentence into meaninglessness?
Substitute one of the words and the sentence would fall apart or lose its cadence within the structure of the paragraph, one jarring rail-car in a train’s rhythmic booming.
Writing beautifully seemed like a secret, and I lacked the code.
Despite my search – majoring in English, taking creative writing classes and starting writing short stories and childish poems in the second grade, followed by more serious writing in college – I saw text as inflexible, and myself as trying, but not getting how to create my own magical version of the word dance.
Sure, I was writing sentences, paragraphs and stories and trying to be literary or serious, playing with voice, listening in on conversations and exploring character in the people around me.
But something just didn’t click.
In spring 2009, I adopted a nine-week-old miniature dachshund named Zoey and, in a first step in potty training, sat with her outside, waiting.
A bird trilled a high-pitched strain that dropped a few octaves, only to slide skyward.
Zoey tipped her head, eyes widened in wonder, slowing her curiosity into the one moment. “What was that?” I could practically hear her ask.
My heart jumped at observing the magic of a first discovery in the shiny shift of sounds from noise to music.
This shift happened to me when I discovered the skeleton key to opening up the seemingly impenetrable pattern of words.
Simple as it may sound, I started using my senses, feeling everything around me in intensity, absorbing smells, sounds, tastes and touches as I experienced work, play and everything in between.
I no longer was doing life. I was being in life (this isn’t a philosophical matter, but a matter of confidence rising out of the mental removal of accepting, even embracing life’s little slaps).
With my senses amped up on self-esteem, I turned my normal routines and boring moments into mystery. What will the air taste like when it rains? What does that birdsong make me think about? How can I describe the sunset? Or the building as it rises up next to my favorite coffee shop?
As I read, I absorb beautiful sentences, rereading them to figure out why I get chills in particular places. I analyze how the individual words fall together, noticing how they feel in my mouth through word choice, cadence and rhythm.
I play with language as I write, aware that I don’t have to get the words right the first time. I can observe them unfold, not worrying if the result is perfect – that’s what revision is for. I can use my thesaurus, letting one word lead to another if the first entry doesn’t launch the right one. I can compare things, trying to smash two unlikely things together, knowing that the result may surprise, happily or not so much.
Either way, I win.
This winning is my key. It’s the doing of writing that matters, the experimentation, the exploration, the wonder and the what if?
What if I never had tried? That would be like losing sound and taste and touch because they needed words in order to exist.
Shelley Widhalm, who lives in Northern Colorado, is a journalist by day who writes poetry, short stories and novels. She is at work on her literary novel with commercial appeal, The Fire Painter. To learn more about her writing life, visit her website. You can read her blog Shell’s Ink and her dog Zoey’s blog at Zoey’s Paw. You also can follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.