"Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."
- Rudyard Kipling
Let's get past the obvious, I am a writer, and therefore predisposed to an interest in language. As a graphic designer might admire the kerning on a vintage sign, or an illustrator reflect on the perfect stroke of a pencil, I can be stopped in my tracks by a beautifully composed phrase or choice of an unusual adjective. The reason I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's books over and over again is less to do with the stories at heart and more about Fitzgerald's command of language and how he plays, savours and seduces the reader with it. Through his choice of words he painted an exquisite picture of love, pain, hope and despair. Such huge emotion through such little letters.
As we shift unavoidably to a world of image-led conversations, are we losing an appreciation for the power of words? We're told that a picture paints a thousand of them, which frankly I've always felt was very unfair to the unending potential promised by carefully chosen words. They can build a future, they can set a plan in motion, they can comfort, they can break our hearts.
Snapchat, Tinder, even Instagram – we're all telling our life stories through images. But a picture can be a smokescreen: the pseudo 'insta-reality' of the rose-tinted (or filtered) moments that we choose to share, carefully sanitised and with only a brief caption - its meaning hidden among hashtags. As my social media feeds get increasingly chockablock with personal and professional personas, I find myself most drawn to posts that break convention and share more of the story via a lengthy caption – after all a beautiful picture can be admired, but take the time and tell me the story and I'm right there with you.
Even when we reach for words first, we're constantly forgetting their value. The advent of 'text speak' was a woeful blow to the beauty of a sentence, but even now we've (mostly) grown out of that phase, we're still quick to be quick with words – using them to protect or promote ourselves with as little of our 'self' in them as possible. We no longer write from the heart. It seems we're more comfortable revealing a bikini selfie than exposing our true thoughts and opinions in written form. Both in business and in my personal life I see how words are treated with suspicion, an arsenal of subtleties not to be trusted or at the very least, to be used with caution. The modern exclamation of regret is surely 'how do you recall an email?'
"More than kisses, letters mingle souls."
- John Donne
I wonder if this modern commitment phobia to the written word is why letter-writing is becoming such a lost art form. If texting and online messaging has turned into such a mental minefield then we're way too scared to commit to paper. There is something more personal about a pen-to-paper note, a careful permanence to the physically written, and that underlying awareness that mistakes are harder to 'apple z'.
With the original introduction of instant messaging and Tumblr, written forms of communication started to wane. When did you last receive a postcard from a friend's travels? Or send one yourself? I like to imagine the romance, excitement and intrigue of the pre-technological age, when lovers would write to one another even when separated by war, and telegrams brought tidings of reaching new shores. Now even hand-writing a birthday card can seem a Herculean effort, not to mention leave us fraught with worry about conveying exactly the right message, something rarely given a moment's thought when absolving oneself of guilt with a quick post on a Facebook wall.
Added to which, we all have memories of when writing seemed, well, a bit of a chore. My early memories on the subject centre around the obligatory thank you cards post-Christmas and birthday, and usually involved me trying to avoid sitting down to do them until tempted by a thick pad of fancy coloured paper and a posh pen. Now I relish any opportunity to send someone a written note, and have a stockpile of (fancy) stationery ready and waiting for the moment. I cherish the physicality of receiving a card or letter in the post, something that I can treasure and file away for future nostalgia, rather than the easily disposable text message. When we consider again the decline in written communication full stop, the physical nature of words written in ink seems to stand for a more thoughtful connection, and reinforces a permanence that can affect us deeply.
A letter can affect the course of history. A book can change a life. A written note can make someone feel cherished. An email can make or break someone's day. All in all, I think we should all be in awe of words – after all, they are the means by which we communicate, in the 6,500 (give or take) languages of the world today. So next time you write a quick email, send a card, text the person you secretly like or tell someone a secret, remember the power that words can hold and use them wisely. But don't fear words – enjoy them. Relish them. Treat them with respect. And don't assume that a picture can explain everything. Most of time, it is only the start of the story, you have to write the rest.
"All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down." -Friedrich Nietzsche