Keep in Words

After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.

– Philip Pullman

Have you ever said the word ‘cock’ out loud?

Yes, I expect you have – but have you said it to your professors? Your peers? Not as a curse. Not to your friends in jest – I mean to people you don’t really know, who don’t know you, but who you respect, the ones you hope one day will hold you in the same esteem. Have you stood at a podium in front of them, stared them in the eye, and said cock.

If you can still answer yes to that question, than I want you to answer this: was it important that you said it?

This past Tuesday at an honorary event for seniors who had submitted these for their creative writing concentrations, I stood in front of advisors and peers I dearly respected and read Freshman out loud. (For those of you curious to read it, you can see it here.) For the rest who have, though I do not think it is a story easily forgotten, let me remind you: Freshman is a montage of rape scenes that explores gender dynamics, gender expectations, and deep-seated beliefs of the perpetrator/victim dichotomy. An uncomfortable story to read, it is even more unsettling to speak. On Tuesday, I read it with power, I read it with feeling, and I did not choke on a single word.

I had four stories to chose from. Why would I read that? Why would I put myself through what was certain to be a blush-worthy speech? I was the opening speaker. I remember thinking, well, that’ll certainly set an interesting tone. I remember distinctly the discomfort of saying my rapists’ raunchy, crude words out loud. I remember settling into the disgusted, repulsive voice of ‘Johnny’. Before the word ‘cock’ left my lips, I could hear it in my head. I remember thinking, just as I uttered the first syllable – am I really about to, and there it was. When I sat down, they all applauded, and then there was a singular sense of needing to ease the unease. The air was heavy. I remember stealing their comfort till the only comfortable choice was to not speak of it, to ignore it, to slide into something else.

That’s when a lesson I had taken in stride, without question, but never understood, finally hit me. When something is uncomfortable, that is when it is most necessary to say it out loud. That is when you cannot, should not, must not stay silent. When something remains unspoken, you must speak it, uncover it, share it, boldly emblazon it across the sky with every ounce of strength you can put into your words – because more often than not, you are uncomfortable because what you are holding in your hand is real, and true, and hard.

Philip Pullman ranked food, a roof, and a loved one before stories, and he’s already a writer, so I guess I’ll have to allow it. But when all those are gone, when we are forgotten, what we leave behind are stories. Stories are not frivolous compositions with no purpose. They are the words we string between us, to span any gaps left by reason, so our thoughts may reach out their fingers and grasp us. So we may understand. 

There is something inside you that is left behind when you are unskinned, when the muscle falls off your bones, when your shadow leaves you. That uncomfortable essence, the truths you are scared to say out loud, the ones you fear. Those are the ones that need most to be spoken.

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