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Growing Up with Words

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I just read a book in Hebrew called "Always on Time" (rough translation). It's not a fantastic book, it's rather tedious at times, although the author writes pain so delicately it breaks my heart. The story is about Netta, an Israeli who lives and loves a man in Japan in the 1990s. We get to read her point of view as well as that of her mother, and also letters from her grandfather (on her mother's side).

This book got me thinking about families and their inheritance. The three generations in this book are all wordsmiths. They are words-people. They love words, they use ridiculously flowery (but only mildly unbelievable) language in their letters, in their thoughts, in their speech. I actually know some people like that, who use a vocabulary that sends you to the dictionary every third sentence, who invoke lyrical imagery when telling you about their commute. OK, I know one guy like that, and he's a poet, so I'm not sure how many regular people walk about the streets of London thinking about the unknowable mist crawling out of the tube ventilation shaft on a crisp cold day.

My family isn't like that. My family, if anything, is a family of not words. My grandmother, who passed away last month, was a woman of very few words. In fact, she thought very little of words. She was a woman of actions. She was doing stuff all her life: tending fields, milking cows, cleaning chicken coops, hanging laundry. She didn't have time to contemplate the sunset, nor, from what I know of her, the desire to. She valued a meal eaten on schedule more than a beautifully presented dish. She liked listening to talk radio (not music) but always while doing something else like cleaning or cooking.

One of my father's things to tell me as a kid was that people have a finite number of words in their lives and we all must use ours wisely if we want the words to last until we reach old age. It's possible I was a chatty kid, and he wanted to shut me up—a sentiment I can empathise with. But it goes to show the state of mind I grew up in. "Actions speak louder than words" was more of a motto than "the pen is mightier than the sword", although a motto was also something my family never did. That would be too explicit. Too wordy.

Whenever I hear someone in my writers' group who writes beautiful imagery and rhythmic sentences, I get jealous. I wish I could write like that, but I know I can't, not easily. I don't know if it's because I grew up in a family where words were a scarcity or because I'm more interested in what happens to the characters than anything else. As a child, I read as much as I could as soon as I could get my hands on it, but I much preferred The Famous Five to The Lord of the Ring because how long can we talk about a leaf in the forest? For me, a story is first about people, and only second about words. I edit for pretty words on the third or fourth draft, and even when I think I've done it I get comments like "let the scene breathe more" which I believe is literary code for "not enough descriptions". I think. What do I know? I'm not much of a words person.


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