On the care and mangling of words


I am a professional mangler of words.

I realized that this morning as I sat working on my (almost) daily poem.  I love playing with words and language and when I am doing a poem like this morning’s, my spell check and grammar check goes berserk. Red lines flag me as the worst of all grammar offenders, a serial killer of good language.

I worked hard to become a good enough writer that I could mangle my language. I have an English degree and a masters in English Writing. I’ve written for forty years or so. I study language and now that I know it, I feel free to wrench the rules this way and that to get the effect and feeling I want.

It’s fun. Poets are supposed to be lost in emotion and maybe a bit melancholy and miserable. Not this boy. Yes, I fight depression, but part of my battle with the stuff is writing, because it’s just plain fun.

I think it’s something in my makeup. I’m not good at rules. I never have been. It drove my dad mad. It frustrated my teachers. It’s why I’ve never done well working for people. (I work fine with them, just not for them.). It’s why I am great at building companies and organizations, but once they get to a certain size and become rule-bound, I am ready to hit the road.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a pretty simple, nice, disciplined guy. But as soon as someone tells me I HAVE to do something, I get feisty and rebellious. Most people outgrow this trait by the time they are twenty few. Alas, I never have.

And it is the same way with words.

I do copywriting as one of the patches in my patchwork life. I love doing it. Crafting words that are clear, compelling and true is an art. I won’t lie on sales copy. But I will use the best words to tell my client’s story well. It is, like poetry, a manipulation of words to get to the truth.

It’s a bad time in history to think words matter. More and more words are being used to confuse or hide the truth. We see it in politics. We see it in marketing. We see it all around us.

Manipulating words is something I love. I want to make things sound a certain way. I love to tinker with them. Toy with them. But in the end, I want them true. There is a responsibility in the care and manipulation of words and I take it seriously.

There is a sign on the entryway to the McCann Agency, a world famous ad agency. It reads “The Truth, Well Told.”.  I wish I had thought of that phrase. It’s what I want to be.

Does it matter? Maybe less to others than me. We’ve become a cynical lot. When laws are called something that they aren’t, when ads promise things that are not close to real; when we live in an age of “alternative truth” as part of the culture, most people don’t know or even care if my small parade of words holds any truth.

So it’s likely just a conceit. Part of the discipline.

Discipline in anything, including writing, is important. It’s a set of rules we set ourselves to do the things we do. Having a set of constraints can challenge our creativity and make it work a little harder, a little better.

It’s a good thing, discipline, whether you are writing sonnets, a 1500 word article for a magazine, or a corporate report that follows a certain format. Having a few rules is good. Manipulation in the name of getting things right and true is one of mine.

And it’s great fun. I learned poetry at the foot of Dr Seuss and Ogden Nash, graduating to Emily Dickenson, William Butler Yeats and e. e. cummings. All wonderful, masterful manipulators of words. I came to believe and feel writing, or creating in any genre should be fun. Not dour.

At least for me.

So when I write, I am like a kid in a room full of Legos. Each block is my word and I get to play with structure, design, and form. I get to play and build things. And people buy my books or pay me in other ways. Even better, a few of you tell me my words matter. What could be better? What could be more fun? How did I get so lucky?

I have no idea, but I will take it.


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