I’ve finally finished Peter Elbow’s Writing With Power, and I have to admit to being fairly disappointed. Elbow is almost a mythic figure among academics who write about writing, but I found much of the book to be rather vague and, often, contradictory. I also found, almost to an example, that Elbow’s selections of good and bad writing seemed exactly the opposite to me. However, there were some things I liked quite a lot and one of those was Elbow’s discussion about where words get their power. It was something I’d not really thought of before but it made perfect sense to me.
First, in writing, words get their power from the readers, not the writers. Elbow didn’t really stress this point but I believe that’s what he was saying. The word “tiger,” for example, only has power if the reader invests that power in it. But where exactly does the power that the reader invests come from? Here’s where Elbow made me think.
Basically, for Elbow, a word only has power in as much as it is able to evoke an image, experience, or thought about the thing the word represents. If the word “tiger” makes you see a tiger, hear its growl, and fear its hunger, then the word has power. I found myself agreeing absolutely, and this is actually what I’ve been trying to say on my own blog in my posts about “lushness” without being quite able to capture it.
But Elbow goes further, and he took me with him. He suggested that, for children, pretty much all words come imbued with power because of how they learn them.The child acquires the word “dog” from being shown a dog and playing with it. For the child, the “word” dog comes to evoke an image and experience of that particular animal every time it is used. The word itself has something of “dogness” about it. It’s as if the symbol has siphoned off some of the power of the real object. As we get older and more sophisticated, though, the word dog becomes a common rather than a unique experience, and the symbols of “d o g” become less and less about a particular dog and more about a general concept. Eventually, the word stops evoking images and experiences when we hear it, and it loses its power.
Elbow uses the example of curse words and taboo words to illustrate his concept. The word “shit” has power because many people still hear that word and react emotionally to it. It still represents, at least a little bit and for some of us, the material that it names. In a similar way, the word “God” has power for those who are believers. For such folks, the word is treated as if it has some element of “godness” within itself.
I remember very clearly as a child how I decided one day to say a particular curse word. I’d heard others curse and wanted to do it too. It took an intense effort of will to make myself say that word. I actually had to fight with myself to get it out, and once I’d said it I felt absolutely awful. What incredible power that word had for me at that moment. And yet, today, I use the word far too frequently and barely even notice when I do. It’s lost its power, at least for me. That word was “damn.”
I’ve known this truth of Elbow’s for a long time but I never knew how to put it into language. I remember perhaps 30 years ago hearing a rap song that seemed to consist almost entirely of the “F” word. I was angry, not so much at the use of the word, which I’d heard plenty of times, but at its “overuse.” My comment at the time was that songs like this were destroying the power of the word,that once the word came to serve as little more than punctuation it would become useless to writers. I was mad because they were taking away one more word of power from us writers and were just wasting it, like pumping gasoline on the ground or burning money.
The worst offenders these days are in politics, where it seems every minor disagreement between Democrats and Republicans has to be magnified to the point of “Warfare,” and where every opponent is a Nazi, or a Socialist, or an Atheist, or a Jesus Freak, or something else along those lines . All of us who use language, and that means all of us, have a vested interest in maintaining the effectiveness of the words we use. I, for one, am getting tired of the idiots trying to steal the power of my words. I’m rising up against them. I’m saying, right here and right now, leave my words the **** alone.