The Words That Stay With Us

January 20, 2019 § Leave a comment

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A few weeks ago I received a copy of Black Warrior Review in the mail, and in a strange convergence of my life as a writer-reader and my day job, I noticed a nonfiction piece by Krys Malcolm Belc entitled “First Seen in Print in 1987, According to Merriam Webster.”

It’s a 13-page piece in 11 sections, with each page headed by a different word from that year, followed by a short essay obviously prompted by that word. The words tie in to an overall personal narrative, written in the second person by a transgender man to his lover.

Here’s an excerpt from the part under the heading ‘BFF’:

Where we went to school the library was always crowded, even on a Friday night. People watched me visit you at work. You’ve always loved to work the latest shift, making money while others relax. Running out the door in your scrubs while I give the kids their after-dinner baths. Saying goodbye as I say goodnight.

At the BWR website, Belc explains in a craft essay how he was inspired to write the piece, describing his birth certificate from 1987, which of course details the birth of a person he no longer is: “The world happened to me as the person on the paper, not the person I am today, for nearly thirty years.” Belc selected words that Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler feature identified as showing their dates of first use as his birth year. The other words include beer goggles, messenger bag, degenderize, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.

Time Traveler has become very popular since we introduced it a couple years ago, and I like to think of it as a sort of fossil record for words. Scrolling through, you see trends: depression words in the 1930s, space-age words in the ’60s, words pertaining to AIDS in the ’80s, etc.

Reading his piece, I was struck by how Belc used the selected words essentially as memory triggers to chart out his own story, as he puts it, “to map myself onto my former self, and to use a form that organically allowed me to do that.”

As someone who defines words for a living and then writes creatively in my off hours, I have always thought of my relationship to words as two-sided: while some days I am trying to shape them, force them to do new things, others I must retreat and observe them candidly. But to look at a word candidly, and to tell its story candidly, requires ignoring the memories you attach to that word. I remember learning the word ‘come’ in nursery school. I remember pointing to it on the blackboard for the teacher. I remember how I learned the word ‘squalor’: not from Salinger and Esmé, but from the news article about a friend who murdered his mother and younger brother.

Belc’s stunning piece reminds us that there are words in our life stories that mark moments, words that lodge in our consciousness in a way that prevents them from ever being neutral, so they can no longer ever be “just words.”

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