If you aren’t careful, words really will eat you alive. I have been gobbled up by them too many times to recount. And, without exception, spit out in a humiliating pile, while my words watch me try to glue my legs back onto my ass and figure out where my tongue went.
And I don’t mean the inevitable mixing up of affect vs. effect (because who cares), or mistakenly put too many or not enough o’s on the end of a to.
No. Let me stir up some visceral perspective for you.
In a rhetorical theory class during the last fall semester of my undergrad– which was a whole fourteen months ago– we were discussing Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. I raised my hand to say something really fantastic and poignant about words and phrases all being inherently metaphorical, and began my scholarly argument with this statement;
“To evoke the words of Nietzsche…”
Then I quoted him, said something about how really radical it is to view language as some kind interpretive endeavor, sat back in my chair and looked around with a self-satisfied grin on my face. It was state college, so none of the students were paying attention to a word I said. The professor, unfortunately, was.
He smiled quite wryly and said:
“Yes, Hannah. Thank you for invoking the words of Nietzsche so intelligently.”
Didn’t matter how right I was, or how transcendent my interpretation might have been, because outside of my evoke/invoke misstep, nothing else was even heard.
And then once again, just this past fall– which apparently is not a well-spoken season for me– I was sending resumes to every entry-level job, and paid (or unpaid, toward the end when I got desperate) internship I could find. I heard back from only one of them, who didn’t hire me. The following anecdote might shed some light on the reason why.
I had a pre-typed cover letter that I only slightly reformatted to fit the needs of the position– substitute teaching, copywriting, article writing, little tweaks here and there to make it make sense. The body of the letter remained pretty much the same, a lugubrious account of how wonderful I am and how wonderful my achievements are and how wonderful I would be to and for them, whoever they were.
The second paragraph of the cover letter, which mostly didn’t get edited for any of the applications because I considered it a flawless, across-the-board display of both my writing skills and personal super awesomeness, started like this (cut-and-pasted from the file I’ve saved on my computer, a constant reminder of the importance of spell and grammar checking):
“I am highly qualified for [whatever the position was] for an amalgRam of reasons; my excellent command of the English language and its mechanics,” blah blah blah, other stuff too.
There is an amalgam of things wrong with this. Claiming to have the English language by the balls, immediately after adding an R to a word which has no business being stuffed with R’s, for one. Also, trying to convince someone to let you be their editor when you obviously can’t edit your own cover letter is a pretty wicked faux pas.
Mistaking words for one another, or butchering them into words that don’t even exist, is only one of the ways words have taken me by the hair and shoved my face in a public restroom toilet. Sometimes they disappear altogether, and leave impostors in their wake.
Allow my point to meet its case.
Just last week, I had a job interview. As is customary, the interviewer asked me what my interests are. I had anticipated this question, and it’s not a very difficult one, so I didn’t practice a response.
Instead of giving an honest answer– I love to read and write, have a passion for music and an obsession with cooking, although I’m terrible at it– I said:
“In my spare time, I, like, learn about things on the internet. I research stuff, to find out about it. You know?”
When I got home, I had to immediately amend my resume to include “using Google” as one of my skills, because I hadn’t– until that wondrous interview epiphany– realized what a specialized talent that was.
Getting side-swiped by language is not limited to these few examples. I know it’s something I do very often, probably– and thankfully– more often than I realize. It’s human to make mistakes, nobody’s perfect, you can’t learn without learning how to make an ass out of yourself and blahhh blahhh blahhhhhhhh.
But it’s damn frustrating to know you’re smart and just not be able to present yourself that way. Being the “writer” who screws up her words is like being the tattooed girl who has ink she hates enough to get removed.