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Words, Words, Words

This past March, a man climbed an enormous sequoia tree in downtown Seattle. Refusing to come down, he threw branches, pine cones, an apple and other debris onto the police below. He stayed there for more than twenty-four hours, and by the time he descended, he had stripped many branches from the upper half of the tree. The damage to the sequoia was assessed at $7800, not including the cost of the time and resources used by the Seattle Police and Fire Departments.

The next day, I heard someone on the radio refer to this man as “the whackjob in the tree.”

Such casual use of this word, “whackjob,” delivered the one-two punch to my gut and to my heart. As someone with a diagnosis of Bipolar 2 (Bipolar Disorder being the condition formerly known as Manic Depression), I think quite a lot about how the language we use to describe those with a mental health condition allows us to ignore the hurt, marginalization, helplessness and hopelessness felt by those who struggle. Oh, the power of words.

And then the election happened. The day the results came out, one of my most articulate and liberal friends expressed horribly offensive words about certain groups of people via social media. Meanwhile one of my dear, conservative relatives expressed horribly offensive words about other certain groups of people, also via social media. The caustic, hostile, unproductive language used by both sides upset me tremendously.

Oh, the power of words.

One week after the election, I had the opportunity to speak to eighty people at my church about how we might begin to better see, care for and love those who have a mental health condition. I asked the audience to generate a list of words our culture uses to describe those of us with “fragile wiring.” In just a few minutes, we had at least fifty words: bonkers, dangerous, nutters, unpredictable, violent, deranged, nutjob, cuckoo, homeless, scary, disheveled …

There was not one positive word on our list. Nothing suggesting anything close to the adjectives I might use to describe those of us who have a mental health condition: creative, sensitive, empathetic, insightful, artistic, boundary-pushing, brave, deep-feeling …

I took a breath and collected myself. It was then that I understood the true power we have as word lovers and sentence crafters. And as you know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Check it out:

Sarah is a whackjob.

Sarah is crazy.

Sarah is mentally ill.

Sarah has a mental illness.

Sarah has a mental health condition.

Sarah lives with a mental health condition.

The distance between “Sarah is a whackjob,” and “Sarah lives with a mental health condition,” is as wide as the distance between California and South Carolina.

Words, I believe, are the single best way to bridge gaps and peacefully increase social justice. And as luck would have it, everyone who makes up the WU community is pretty darn good with words.

But why is fiction–beautiful, skillfully crafted lies–just as powerful as words? Is a story written by me or you really so significant in the scope of things? Does every story really matter?

Yep and absolutely.

Every person on the planet wants to feel seen, heard and understood. Fiction does that. Fiction also helps readers experience this truth: all humans are far more alike than different. In fact in this Boston Globe article [1], it seems that fiction–even more than non-fiction–helps us see and hear people who seem so different:

[R]esearch consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.

Being rubbery doesn’t make us wishy-washy. It gives us opportunities to see how other people struggle, to see how we all seek and deserve the same things, how–and this is most important of all–we (I, you, the man in the sequoia, the crabby U.S. Postal Service employee, the neighbor who drives me, well, bonkers) are all doing the best we can.

Recently, I have been watching Glee with my kids. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love musicals, and I love that there’s a character in a wheelchair, a character with Down’s Syndrome, several gay characters, a character with obsessive-compulsive disorder. This fictional high school is filled with people who are “different” yet they are just like everyone else. Fiction–whether it’s Shakespeare or network television–reminds The Normal that The Different are not so different. And that there’s really no such thing as The Normal. Fiction also reminds The Different that they are not alone. Or even very different.

For example?

A while back, as I was out walking the puppy and listening to My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman, I burst into tears. My grandmother had recently died, and it felt so good to listen to a story where even an imaginary little girl in a story written by a Swedish man shared a similar sadness and loss. Such comfort.

Reading Shelter in Place by Alexander Maksik, a story about a young man with bipolar disorder, I was reminded that while many in my life can’t understand what it’s like to have the brain I do, there are some who do understand. How comforting.

Watching Game of Thrones reminds me that even on my worst parenting days, I am not as bad a mom as Cersei Lannister. And that brings me comfort.

Lumbering along on crutches for the last four weeks after foot surgery, I have fallen several times, the most public fall happening at the dog park while the pup was still on his leash. I could not hold on to him and retrieve my fallen crutch and hoist myself up. And I had landed in a puddle. People stared at me. I was embarrassed by my floundering. I was mad that no one helped me. I was just as mad that I needed the help of strangers. A bit later, I remembered the protagonist, Jude, in A Little Life by Hanya YanagiharaBecause Jude walks with a considerable limp and unbearable pain, he too experiences humiliating falls in public. He is simultaneously mortified by his own neediness and desperate for others’ compassion. My muddy tush and I took solace in the fact that we all fall, and we all have to find a way to hoist ourselves back up to standing. Jude’s story turned my embarrassment into humility. Comfort indeed.

In a profession with so many hurdles (completing a novel, crafting query letters, self publishing books, seeking agents, finding a traditional publisher, marketing the novel, dealing with frequent rejection, persevering …) we must remember that our words and our stories help readers feel seen and heard.

Our words and stories foster the empathy that helps us understand there may not be such a wide gap between us after all, that California and South Carolina aren’t quite as different as we think, that we are all connected, living in the same beautiful, complex, knotted web, all of us doing the best we can to do the best we can. What comfort.

Your turn! Will you share a work of fiction that has made you feel seen and heard? Or a work of fiction that has impacted your ability to hope and thrive? Where have you seen the power (for better or for worse) of words? 

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Oskarl Niltamo [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.