Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Un-Magic of Words

Most of my career has been in corporate communications, for several companies and as an independent consultant. It’s been an uneasy relationship, not the least for what may seem an odd and small thing.


It’s always been something of a mystery for me, and for 40+ years, why so many of the people I’ve worked with appear to have a fixation (bordering on mania) on words – finding exactly the right word, or saying something exactly the right way, as if the words by themselves contained a power that would explain and persuade.

If you saw what effort, what tortured effort, goes into creating the simplest news release, you would understand. If you’ve participated in the most basic of organizational activities, you know what happens.

It took Trappist monk, writer, and poet Thomas Merton, by way of the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to explain it.

I’ve been reading Williams’ A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton. It’s a collection of previously published essays by Williams, and the five essays (and a poem by Merton) fit together well. In the chapter entitled “New Words for God: Contemplation and Religious Writing,” he quotes Merton:

“It is the businessman, the propagandist, the politician, not the poet, who devoutly believes in the magic of words. For the poet, there is precisely no magic, there is only life in all its unpredictability and all its freedom. All magic is a ruthless venture in manipulation, a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

There it was, in all its simplicity. The uneasiness of my corporate relationships has, in part, been about how my employers and I have understood words. And we have seen them differently. I see them as Merton describes the poet seeing them; my employers have seen words as magic. When the words don’t work, when they don’t achieve the desired result, the reason must be we haven’t found the right words.

Rarely has the thought been expressed that we may be trying to get words to do something they can’t do.

It’s as if so many people in the workplace embrace “in the beginning was the word,” and stop there. Words and language aren’t magic so much as they are a means to understanding something greater.

Words are typically assigned a burden they cannot carry – to substitute for action or deeds. One CEO I worked for, and wrote quite a few speeches for, understood this. “Policy is not what you say,” he often pointed out. “Policy is what you do.”

Words don’t contain some inherent magic or power. If they did, we’d all be walking around casting spells. We can’t assemble the magic words like some shaman or witch doctor and make things happen.

Words work best when they represent something we believe, something we believe in, something we have done, something greater greater than ourselves.

Photograph by Piotr Siedlecki via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Maureen said...

Good post, Glynn.

Anonymous said...

They are written
and spoken with breath
absorbed by the heart
and set free with the wind
waiting on paper
for generations
typed shapes
written code
a song

Rick Dawson said...

Great post, Glynn. No magic involved, just truth.

diana said...

Oh, this is good! Thank you, Glynn. I love words and I try to use them well. But the words themselves mean nothing, do nothing, unless infused by the Word. This book goes on the wish list. Thanks.