Words matter. They always have. They matter to us as writers, as readers, and as people communicating with each other. I cannot think of a more essential truth in my career as an author, journalist and editor, for sure. Not only do words matter, but the ways in which we convey them, and the way we convey truth and true facts, has never mattered more — especially in these times, when truth has been marginalized at times, and far too many words have been spoken to inflict harm on others.
As a longtime member of the media, I freely admit that, yes, the media at times — both camps — has weaponized words to force opinions and accusations onto others, under the guise of “analysis” or “opinion”. My grandmother would have been horrified; I remember her saying to me many times, even as an adult, “Please try to speak more like you write;” in other words, choosing words carefully and watching the tone and intent. When I was a young journalist, opinions and analyses were confined to the op-ed page, not spread across entire publications or screens — or hour after hour of TV “news” talk. AND, even though they were opinions or analyses, the principal facts behind them were fact-checked for truth and accuracy.
Words matter. So does their power, their delivery, and their truth. We were reminded of that and called to action in a very big way on Wednesday, when 23-year-old Los Angeles poet Amanda Gorman brought a suffering, divided nation to its feet with her reading of “The Hill We Climb,” the poem she wrote for the Biden Inauguration, which begins:
When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it.
As a long-time published poet myself, I loved the urgency, power and imagery of Amanda’s poem — stark, real, right in front of our faces. It felt like the perfect poem for the moment. I also loved the way she presented, with an assuredness, expressiveness and on-stage mastery that is pretty amazing for someone who couldn’t even pronounce “r’s” with consistency until three years ago. She’s on a fast track now, though, having performed on big stages from CBS This Morning to The Library of Congress, where new First Lady Dr. Jill Biden watched her perform — and invited her back to an even bigger stage.
Right now, I feel very fortunate that, in my life, I’ve been lucky enough to hear the great Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” performed at JFK’s inauguration in the waning years of his illustrious life (my mom put her then 17-month-old son in front of the TV so I could hear Frost); and “The Hill We Climb,” performed by a young poetic powerhouse as her literary career is just getting started. Or rocketing forward; in the past 24 hours, she’s probably drawn the most online attention of anyone in the world. She rocked the nation — and world.
What I’m not surprised about is a 23-year-old performing on such a big stage. Amanda is part of Generation Z, which seems serious, intent and focused on dispensing with the blame game, rolling up their sleeves, and making this country better. While I’ve never met Amanda, I’ve known about her for a few years; a group of high school poets I mentored in Southern California raved about her and told me why. She was born to be a poet — and a mentor. Her first book, due out in September, is a children’s book, Change Sings.
This morning, I heard an interview with Amanda, in which she talked about the power and purpose of words, and her relationship with words moving forward. Something she said really got to me, and reminded me of how sacred I’ve always tried to hold words and the written language. They also left me reflecting on what our conversations, journalism, TV news programs and shows, social media, books, readings and writings would look like if we could adhere, even a little, to what Amanda said:
“I want to reclaim, resanctify, and repurify the power and truth of words, because words do matter.”
Amen. As a writer, I’m taking up her challenge and working to heed her call. Words matter — never more than now.