Dear word nerd,
If you answered “Yes” to the question in the title, then you got it wrong.
The fabulous Kristen Lamb—author, blogger, and friend—often gives this pop quiz at conferences. She’ll tell the audience: “Raise your hand if you’re an aspiring writer.” Some people wave wildly like the writing version of Hermione Granger. A few others hesitate at first, then slowly muster the strength to sneak their hand up. After a few seconds, most of the room has their hand in the air. I’ll admit, the first time I heard hear ask this question even I raised my hand.
Of course as the audience soon discovers, this is a trick question.
No one is an “aspiring” writer. If you write, you are a writer. Period. End of story. It’s a telling fact that so many of us need to qualify our status as writers by calling ourselves “aspiring.” In fact, I’ve found this is true with most creative careers, where we’ll hear people say they are aspiring actors or musicians, but we never hear someone call themselves an “aspiring plumber” or an “aspiring neuroscientist.”
I share this anecdote to underscore the power of words, even if those words seem inconsequential. Whether we tack on the dreaded a-word when we call our selves writers, is only the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, every word matters, and when we talk about ourselves, those are often the most influential words of all. What we tell ourselves about our writing not only shifts our perspective about the work itself, but shades how we view ourselves as creative people.
Last November I shared a personal story with this community, and today I wanted to take that story one step further. I want to talk about how the language I’ve chosen around bipolar disorder has shaped both the way I see my illness and how I live with it. These nuances might seem like mere semantics, but as writers we know how much words matter. Here are two decisions I have made regarding word choice and how they have influenced my thoughts, my beliefs, and even my actions.
Being vs. Having
“My friend/sister/neighbor is bipolar.” This is a refrain I’ve heard often since sharing the story about my illness. I’ve even had some people tell me: “I’m bipolar, too.”
Every time I hear the word “is” or “am” in relation to mental illness it makes my skin bristle, because I refuse to think of myself as someone who is her mental illness. I usually try to correct people (lovingly, of course), using the word “have” in place of the verb “to be.”
Early on, I decided this disease was not going to define who I am. I may be many things—a woman, a Brazilian-American, a New Yorker, and word-nerd-in-chief at DIY MFA—but I most certainly am not my mental illness. Yes, I have bipolar, the same way someone might have cancer, only we don’t call them “cancerous.”
This being vs. having conundrum has challenged me to develop more empathy for how other people describe themselves as well. When I talk to someone about charged topics, I’m very careful to listen to how they describe themselves. After all, just because I have decided not to define myself by my diagnosis doesn’t mean that another person might not make a different choice, and if I impose my choice on them, I’m no better than those people who label me by my mental illness.
This need for empathy and understanding applies to any aspect of identity, by the way, including gender, race, nationality, socioeconomic status, mental health, or even politics. The key is remembering that the words we choose—even something as seemingly minor as the distinction between being vs. having—can have a profound impact on how we think.
Because vs. Despite
I recently took a writing class where I submitted an essay about bipolar disorder. When it was time to discuss my piece, the teacher said how inspiring it was that I accomplished so much despite having this huge obstacle in my life. I almost choked on my coffee when I heard this. And after a few other students echoed the sentiment, I knew the conversation would amount to little more than “inspiration porn.”
A lot of people talk about success as either something we achieve either because of our good qualities and advantages, or as something we reach despite the challenges we face.
But when it comes to bipolar disorder, this because vs. despite dichotomy is problematic. Some might argue that this illness has helped spur my creative accomplishments, not unlike that idealized image we have of a tortured artist. In fact, Kay Redfield Jamison’s book Touched with Fire suggests a strong tie between bipolar illness and creativity. You could also use it to explain away some of my less glamorous moments: “Don’t mind Gabriela… she’s just having one of her episodes.” On the other hand, you could take the same position as that writing teacher, stressing how inspiring it is that I achieved so much, despite the setbacks caused by my topsy-turvy brain chemistry.
Though “because” and “despite” seem to be opposites in this context, I dislike them for the same reason, because they imply causality between my achievements (or boneheaded failures) and my illness. The truth is, that causal link doesn’t actually exist. Bipolar isn’t something I’ve succeeded because of or in spite of, it’s simply something that has been alongside me throughout my journey.
Choosing to say “alongside” is key. This subtle semantic shift has overturned how I perceive the illness itself and the role it plays in my life. It is no longer a partner in crime or an obstacle I must overcome, it’s just a fellow traveler on the road with me.
It’s Your Turn
My challenge for you today is to think—really think— about the words you use when you talk about yourself, your life, your writing. Strip those words down to their barest essentials. Try to understand that deeper meaning behind them.
Then choose one word or short phrase and rewrite it. Choose different words. Be deliberate. I gave you two examples here. Now it’s time to make your own.
As always, keep writing and keep being awesome!