Advertisement

Weighing Words

Marjorie Miller is foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times.

AS I TRACE the taut scar across my neck, the reason I am unable to speak, I realize just how deeply mine is a life of words. I am a writer who plays with language, an editor of far-flung correspondents who talks on the telephone all day. I am a mother of two daughters who shout to me from a distance and expect a robust response.

But I am recovering from throat surgery and have no voice. My vocal chords are still and, for the moment, I am strangely silent. Blessedly, some might add.

At work, I have been known to rant about lengthy, mid-sentence clauses, or about the repetition of words. The misuse of “further” and “farther” drives me to distraction. (Further is conceptual, farther is distance.) So do the phrase fads that proliferate like weapons of language destruction: “Indeed” or “in the wake of” suddenly will appear everywhere, as if word waste is falling from the sky.

At home, my children know to expect a verbal rap on the knuckles for an erroneous pronoun. “Anna and I, not me and Anna,” I admonish my older daughter, Sara. The girls may well feel a little grammar silence is golden.

Advertisement

Words for me are textured and physical. That is why “cloud” and “bluff” annoy me, as the sounds are contrary to their meanings. Clouds are fluffy and bluffs are hard drops. “Plethora” is full-bodied, as it should be. And “persnickety” is as fussy and staccato as it sounds. A joy to say, albeit a pain to live with, I know.

When writing is a chore, my hands feel leaden. But when I write something that excites me, my fingers tingle as though they are conducting electric words. I like to read my writing aloud to see how the words feel on my tongue, and how they sound. I formulate my ideas by talking them through with friends. I joke and argue. I enjoy word games and a good play on words. I read the paper to my husband at breakfast, whether or not he’s reading his. I call my sister with the latest political humor. I grill my kids when they come home from school and, they say, mercilessly interview their friends. I talk to myself. Truth be told, I finish other people’s sentences.

But now that it is physically difficult for me to speak, uttering a sentence is exhausting. A conversation is the verbal equivalent of 10 flights of stairs to a 300-pound heart patient.

So I am on a speech diet, forced to count my words like calories and conserve. Where normally I would use three words, I use one, and perhaps my eyebrows for punctuation: News? Calls? Sweater? I resort to nonverbal communication, to body language such as a shrug or a smile. It works, but like e-mail it lacks inflection and nuance. Unless you’re an actor, a shrug is pretty much a shrug. But even a voice like mine, which no one has ever suggested can carry a tune, usually has a full range of expression.

Advertisement

For the first time in my life, I am weighing my words not to spare someone’s feelings or to be precise, but to see whether they are worth saying. It is a care I routinely take in writing, but not in speaking. Nor do most people ask themselves before opening their mouths, “Is it worth the energy it will take to say this?” Often it is not.

Often we speak just because we think it’s expected of us, as when we meet an acquaintance and ask, “How are you?” We know we’re supposed to say “Fine,” and mostly we do, although I admit that from time to time I have been tempted to respond with a comment about good sex or bad gas just to see if anyone is listening. Would it be a loss if we dispensed with some verbal pleasantries?

So much of what we say is automatic, at least until it won’t come out automatically: good morning, have a good day, what did your teacher say, are you going to eat the rest of that, did you see that article in the newspaper today? It is hard to measure the value of this chatter that is the white noise of family life, until suddenly, when your child yells “Mom” from a far corner of the house, you cannot yell back, “Wha-at?”

The benefit of some discourse is more readily apparent. “I’m glad I wasn’t living in 1932,” my 11-year-old said the other day.

“Why?” I croaked.

“The Depression,” she said.

This is a topic worthy of elaboration. Anna was reading a novel set during the Depression, and I wanted to offer her enlightenment, a headlamp down the tunnel of history. But I could not rally the words.

Rather than wallow, I look for value in my mute state. My silence allows others more time to speak, and me more time to listen. It forces me to reflect, and to remember that quiet is the oxygen of creativity. “Think of all of the times you sought silence in a hot bath at the end of the day, in a dark room before sleep,” I tell myself.

Advertisement

It took me years to understand that those moments, like the hours spent staring at a blank page or returning to the kitchen for more coffee, were as much a part of writing as the hours spent crafting paragraphs. Great music, good conversation, a thunderstorm all can inspire me to write. But ultimately, I must turn to the quiet part of myself for the words. Silence is peaceful and productive.

But enough peace. What if I can never speak properly again? For several days after the doctor described my condition in hair-splitting terms as “unusual but not rare,” I feared I might not recover my voice. I would still have words and writing, I thought, but not the ability to express my ideas verbally or to enjoy the lyrical feel of language. I would not cry out in joy or pain. I might never grouse again. I might not scold the children or tell them I love them. I might not haggle with a reporter over word choice and exclaim over the beauty of their language. I realize that if I could not speak my mind, I would not be me. And like so many things we fail to appreciate until they are threatened, the spoken word suddenly seems a luxury, the loss of speech an unbearable personal tragedy.

It turns out, however, that silence also is a great healer. After a period of rest, my voice is coming back. I am very pleased. Elated, in fact. But I guess that goes without saying.


Advertisement