Words I Won't Use
This is a bit of an experiment. To see if it will motivate me to write more regularly, and also to be more comfortable sharing what I’ve written. I think the subscription model will work for me, in that I won’t worry that I’m forcing anyone to read these when they may actually have little interest. I’ve thought in the abstract about what kinds of things I’d write about, or how I’ll write, mostly while reading other essays/books/articles that I find particularly touching.
I’ve been working on my thesis for iTi, the written component of which is mostly consisting of weaving quotations and pop-culture references together with my own thoughts. Trying to speak to being molded by these influences, I guess. Or maybe how these artifacts can “explain” why I believe the things I do, why I feel the way I do, without having to risk explaining it myself. Maybe I can nudge you in that direction, so that maybe you can understand me a bit better. Articulating your emotions is difficult, even on the rare occasion that the words themselves come easy.
When someone asks me to repeat myself, I rarely do. When I was a kid, with the TV on in the background as it usually was, and my tendency to mumble, as people often point out, I would still interpret any request that I repeat what I’d just said as an admission that the other person hadn’t been listening closely. That it wasn’t worth listening closely to whatever I had to say. I usually knew when I was overreacting; I knew that sometimes the TV was too loud, or I was speaking softly, or we were in the middle of a crowd, with other people speaking simultaneously. Still, I felt that if someone really wanted to hear me, they would have. Looking back, it was probably more of a reflection of my own growing social insecurities than anything else. A carrying-over of my experiences in various fleeting friend groups, where I felt I was just slightly on the outside. When three friends walked side-by-side, taking up the entire width of the sidewalk next to the FDR drive between 76th and 79th, I always ended up walking ahead of them, occasionally craning my neck to try and participate in the conversation, pretending I had charged ahead intentionally, because they’d been walking too slow.
I thought for my first email I might put together a list of words I’ll never use. I don’t know why, but this has been on my mind for the last week or so. Is my vocabulary comprised of all the words I know, or only those which I’ve actually said, or written? There are so many words I’ll never say, even among the words I know. Some are too specific to reasonably have relevance to my own life, and some just feel strange in my mouth. There are words from other languages that I wish I could use, but won’t because, even if they are the most articulate expression of my feelings, my mostly-english-speaking-listeners won’t understand, and might even ask me to clarify, defeating the purpose of the single word for something larger. I haven’t begun to compile this list. I started browsing and got stuck when I found this:
Mamihlapinatapai: A silent acknowledgement and understanding between two people who are both wishing or thinking the same thing and are both unwilling to initiate (Yaghan)
I read that article about millennial burnout last week, which it seems like all of twitter read. It sounds like me. Daunted by everyday tasks, and then drained by the self-humiliation that I can’t even follow through. I told a friend I would send her these cameras I have, so she can give them to her high school students, but it’s been almost a month and I haven’t been able to bring myself to the post office. And I always have to ask someone to approve an email before I send it. I’ll take a screenshot, send it to a friend with a simple “good?” and wait for confirmation. The other day someone asked me, jokingly, if I have a secret life he didn’t know about. I said “No,” and then “Well, maybe.” I worry about people having low expectations of me, or worse, none. There are members of my extended family to whom I’ve hardly spoken in years, because I don’t know what to say that won’t bring up my guilt for having said nothing for so long. So I say nothing for longer.
Earlier this year, my mom found a collection of report cards and teacher evaluations written about my brother and I from nursery through eighth grade. In third grade, my Social Studies teacher noticed that I never spoke in class unless I was sure of what I had to say. Too often, by the time I’d figured out what I wanted to add to the conversation, we had long ago moved on to something else. By 6th grade, I knew to raise my hand as soon as I recognized that I had something to say, and even now, even in casual conversation, I’ll often start speaking before I’ve figured out the most sufficient words. But my commitment to accuracy, to finding that right word I’m looking for, is steadfast. So, when I come to that point in the sentence, I’ll stop. And together we’ll wait until I’ve found it.
Whenever I have to talk about my work, I record myself. It’s easier than taking notes, and has gotten me used to the sound of my own voice, which has had the positive side effect of making me less self-conscious. That being said, listening back, I realize that the pauses I take to find my words are much longer than they felt in the moment. I don’t really know how that’s possible, but it does seem like every time I listen back, even in the immediate aftermath of the conversation, my silences are about 40% longer than I expect them to be. Looking for the right words, it’s as if the racking in my brain fills the space in the sentence, making the silence imperceptible to me. But listening back, I feel it again, now with more awareness of the passing time. The back-and-forth like a metronome, like someone tapping their foot or their wristwatch.
I don’t think of myself as being linguistically quick on my feet. I’m not good at improvising. Sometimes I think I might be good at lying, but maybe I just don’t lie about anything consequential enough to be called out with much frequency. I don’t often begin with a blank page when I write, because I can’t pull language out of nothing. Have you ever caught yourself understanding a feeling in an instant, and still taking the time to think it out in words?
I worry that I won’t do justice to my emotions. That I won’t accurately articulate my thoughts. That I’ll downplay or overplay their intensity, or misattribute their source, betraying myself in the process. The one thing that’s worse than not being understood at all is when people think they understand you, but you’ve accidentally misled them.
Occasionally, I’ll give up the search. I’ll choose an intentionally-vague word, rather than one that’s close, but still incorrect. I’ll close the silence with a word like “thing” or “whatchamahoozit.” Sometimes I’ll spout a random series of nonsense syllables, or condense everything into a single hand gesture. Maybe when we can’t find the words, when it’s impossible to communicate in a way that feels accurate enough, we can still convey the urgency of our desire to do so.