Today fiction author and poet Nancy Slavin talks about how she finds motive in words themselves, both their beauty and their pain. "The first step towards violence," she says, "often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts."
Just a quick warning: In order to illustrate this, she uses a few examples of hurtful words below.
The subject of today’s post is about motive--what motivates this individual writer to write a certain book. I feel the need to state and expound on the obvious: words motivate me. Sound, rhymes, sentences, metaphors, stories; all the magic that can ensue just because of twenty-six English letters. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a linguist. I’d learn more letters and languages. My favorite part of motherhood was when my child was learning to speak; my second favorite has been watching her learn to read. I’m still amazed that little dark marks on a white page can communicate whole ideas, conjure galaxies, and create the possibility of freedom and justice.
My original writing training is in poetry; the fine tuning of words and sounds is deep in my heart. I happen to come from a family of mostly artists--a mother who paints, a photographer sister, and a father who is a graphic designer and a potter. I have a brother, too. He flies planes. For me, the artistic medium is words. So that’s the first motive, and I hope, if you’re a writer, that’s your first motive, too. Otherwise, perhaps, consider another medium, like paints or planes.
Because I love words, I am also fascinated by how poorly they get used and how often, especially in relationships (and really, all human interaction is in relationship, hello “friends” on Facebook). Poorly-used words was too often the experience in my childhood, as it is for lots of kids. The long-term witnessing of belittling, mean words, name-calling, and the silent treatment (the tense, tense absence of words), motivated me to work in the field of domestic and sexual violence.
In my work for more than twenty years, I was a violence-prevention educator--I taught other people, mostly youth, but many adults too, how to use words to communicate feelings and needs in healthy rather than hurtful ways, words that created connection rather than division and wreckage. In my trainings, I facilitated a lot of exercises that asked people to consider their words--words that were cruel but often minimized as no big deal, and/or words that categorized another person into an “other” based on their gender, race, religion, class, sexual identification or orientation. I said some dreaded words out loud and wrote them on boards, and I discussed their origins: words like bitch, fag, nigger, and redneck. I did this work so students could learn the histories and weight of words they might casually say or hear or write on the back of a desk. Depending on if they were on the receiving or giving end, they might respond to those words with an upped ante of violence, towards another, or inwards at themselves. The first step towards violence often is words that make people, well, less than people: into objects, or animals, or body parts.
As a domestic violence worker, I heard all kinds of stories about abuse that left literal scars on people. But I tell you, many, many people also disclosed quite often how the words hurt the most--the words of being told they were no good, not worthy, deserved the abuse, that the abuse was their fault, and many versions on that theme. The words, they told me, were the hardest to shake. They kept hearing those words in their head, reverberating.
All of the above lays the foundation for the main question I explore in my creative work: how do we heal from violence? How do we stop hurtful words from reverberating in our minds? Ultimately, that question led me to create a character in my first novel, Moorings. She was a woman who’d escaped terrible domestic violence, but she’d become mean herself, even in safety. I was curious what continued healing might look like for her. And I also explore the question in my second novel, which is based on and written for many of the youth with whom I worked, who’d been told twelve ways to Sunday they were unlovable and unloved. How does a person stop hearing those words and start believing a new story about who he or she is?
There are many novels that have explored domestic violence and the rewriting of your own story, or writing your way into a new one. The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, Black and Blue by Anna Quindlan, and for youth dealing with family violence, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy all come to mind. Although it's poetry, Maya Angelou’s book Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing, and the poem “Caged Bird” that appears in that collection and stems from her important memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was a formative poem for me. I’m also a fan of the play Trifles, by Susan Glaspell. And since I’m working on my YA novel, my next book up to read is Speak, by contemporary author, Laurie Halse Anderson, which confronts the reality of sexual assault.
I am motivated in my personal life to be a healthier person. I have come a long way in some areas, and, in other ways, I still have a long way to go. I use words to tell myself some fascinating stuff sometimes. But listening to the words I say out loud, and then writing the words down to revise my own story, is my path toward health and healing. See? The letters “h-e-a-l” are the first four letters of “health.” How cool is that?
For an important talk on the power of words in relationship to violence, I recommend Jackson Katz’s TED talk on domestic violence and words and language.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Check out which communities near you have planned to raise awareness through the National Coalition to End Domestic Violence.
Review on Goodreads and Amazon.
Follow Nancy Slavin on Twitter.
Nancy Slavin has been a longtime English literature and writing instructor for a community college as well as a violence-prevention educator. She’s authored a collection of poems, Oregon Pacific (2015), and a novel, Moorings, (2013). More of her work can be found in Rain Magazine, Barrelhouse, hip mama, Literary Mama, and Oregon Humanities Magazine. Her website is www.nancyslavin.com.
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