Telling stories

What to Say When Words Fail You

Posted by southwrite on June 2, 2014

Story Word Cloud

A writer friend once told me: the words you use to describe a thing are never the same as the thing itself.

It can be frustrating, but as writers we use words as a substitute for actual people, places and events. And, we all know the descriptions we put into articles and books are often incomplete. There is what happens and then there is my account of it – two different and separate things. No matter how accurate we try to be or how many eye witnesses we interview there is always something missing.

Our words recreate the event, but our version is still separate and different.

If we’re reporting a story, we can’t see every aspect of it. What we do see is colored by our experience and bias. The same is true of the witnesses that become our sources.

Memory is a funny thing. Police in particular have long known that the accounts of eye witnesses are often unreliable. It not just memories fade or people see only part of an event, but they can be unintentionally created. We think we saw something and the recollections are vivid and real – but false. And, when we rely on them our writing is that much further away from what actually happened.

When I consider this frailty of truth, I recall one truly transcendental experience in my life.

Some years ago I found myself on a rocky beach in Northern California. It was midnight and the waves crashing on the shore were loud and rhythmic. As I sat there alone and starting out into the darkness an uncommon feeling came over me.

The Pacific, which already seemed like a wild thing to me, seems to take on form. It was as if it became a living being rising up and taking shape around me. I felt myself drawn up into its embrace. For a time my mind seemed totally open and I was aware of something much greater than me, but also much more intimate than anything I had known before. I became convinced that I was in the presence of a divine intelligence. God. Spirit. Names only came to me later.

I don’t know how much time passed, but the feeling and the awareness was eventually gone. I was sitting on the beach again listening to the ocean, but I was changed. Up until then I had a vague idea that something called God might exist. Now I felt deep within me it was real and it had opened up to it. At least in that moment.

I knew that some – from native Americans to  Aldous Huxley and others – have used drugs to go beyond normal perceptions. I had none, yet something very much like it had happened to me.

Since then whenever I’ve described it, I’ve come away knowing I can’t. Words fail me in conveying what I saw and felt – or imagined.

Yet, whatever it was, I was changed by it. Of that I’m sure. Yet, it also taught me just how much our own truth is own truth – and unconnected to the larger world.

It’s a reality that can make us better at understanding others and their experiences as we engage with them as writers.

One Response to “What to Say When Words Fail You”

  1. Mark Kelmachter said

    There is a whole book of like experiences. It is called Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James. It is well worth reading.

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