One of my responsibilities at The High Calling is serving as Twitter editor, and at the rertreat I livetweeted the speakers. If you’ve ever livetweeted before, and particularly when a speech or discussion runs an hour or more, you know you have to pay close attention to the speaker’s words. Livetweeting is not a verbatim transcription, but it’s close. (If you’re interested, you can read the entire retreat Twitter stream – the hashtag is #hcretreat.)
At the November High Calling retreat at Laity Lodge in the hill country of Texas, one of the speakers was Marilyn McEntyre, professor of Medical Humanities at the University of California (UC) – Davis and the Joint Medical Program of UC-Berkeley and UC-San Francisco. The author of five books of poems and books on poetry, how to read a text, reading, and teaching literature and medicine, she was there to talk with us about how to be a steward of words.
Words need stewards? Yes, indeed they do, McEntyre said. Language is a gift, a treasure, and we hold it in trust.
I livetweeted both of McEntyre’s presentations. In a sense, I was channeling what she was saying. I was so drawn in that at the first break I downloaded to my Kindle the book she was drawing upon – Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I finished reading it before the end of the retreat.
It’s a wonderful book, published in 2009 and based on lecutes she gave at Princeton Theological Seminary. McEntyre cares deeply about language and words, and how we misuse both. She particularly faults the language of marketing and the language of public discourse for confusing, disguising intent, and misappropriating language for their own ends. She also discusses how words fall into disuse, left forgotten in old novels and essays, their meanings obscure.
But instead of a book of complain and expose, she instead offers twelve strategies for how to reclaim words and language, how to be good stewards of words. Each strategy has its own chapter.
Love words. Tell the truth. Don’t tolerate lies. Read well. Stay in conversation. Share stories. Love the long sentence (a favorite chapter – with suggestions on how to read Faulkner). Practice poetry. Attend to translation. Play. Pray. Cherish silence.
At the retreat, we had the benefit of engaging in a series of exercises that provided examples of what McEntyre means when she says we are to be stewards of words. Many of them centered on poetry, suggesting that the practice of poetry may be more practical than most people think.
If I have a quibble with her presentations and the book, it is a minor one – it’s too easy these days to criticize how corporations and government abuse language (and they do). And it’s too easy to overlook some of the worst abusers of language – like universities, speech codes designed to ensure no one is offended by anyone saying anything, the news media, and the education establishment. (When I spent time as the communications director for an urban school district, I learned very early to be immediately suspicious of anyone who promoted themselves or their agendas by talking about “it’s for the good of the children.” That was a code phrase – and it meant that what was being said really had nothing to do with the good of the children.)
My minor complaint aside, the book is full of value, not only for writers and speakers but also for anyone who cares about language. It’s especially important for writers, though, and as I looked around the room at the retreat, I saw writers furiously taking notes.
And it was a double delight to hear McEntyre speak in a quiet voice full of passion for her subject, and follow with reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.
Photograph by Darren Lewis via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.