Why Being A Wordsmith Will Matter In 2018

When the results of the 2016 election hit us over a year ago, there were immediate calls over social media to doctors, lawyers, social service workers, teachers, and all manner of professionals: “Step up, offer your services for free, volunteer your time and skills to make sure the communities about to be negatively impacted will be taken care of.” As glad as I was go see other people rising to the occasion, I felt useless: I was a writer, an editor, someone who dealt with words. And at the time, words seemed inadequate, ephemeral things that paled in comparison to concrete skill sets. How wrong I was.

In 2017, we watched words take center stage and come under furious attack. Words lost meaning and gained meaning. Those pushing “alternative facts” and “fake news” used words to pummel logic and reason. Words (or the lack of them) became the ultimate weapon. And that means that as wordsmiths— whether you are a writer, an editor, or a publisher — it will be on us in 2018 to make use of those weapons wisely.

The State Of Words Today

Earlier this month, the Trump administration banned the CDC from using seven words in budget proposal documents. Those words are: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. While the CDC has done its best to reassure the public after the Washington Post report, Americans know this is wrong. Not only is the prospect of banning words inherently un-American, the words themselves speak volumes about the intention behind the ban. But here’s the thing: this is a move of fear, proving that words can shake people to their core. These words have always been powerful, but this move has made them into veritable battle cries.

This war on words is not a new phenomenon, and this whole year has been leading up to such blatant censorship. During a February 2017 Trump rally in Virginia, a TIME reporter was detained by the Secret Service after the reporter was thrown to the ground and put into a choke hold by rally attendees. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin — well known for having dissident journalists killed or imprisoned — pointed out at the press pool covering a meeting with Trump and asked “Are these the ones hurting you?” Throughout the 2016 election and to this day, Trump supporters can be seen wearing shirts that say: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

Even more recently, it has been announced that Trump is playing around with the idea of tariffs on paper. The U.S. Department of Commerce is going to announce in January whether it will impose preliminary countervailing duties on Canadian imports of uncoated groundwood paper, used in everything from book publishing to newsprint. Not only will this create higher prices across the board, it will put an unfair strain on U.S. paper mills which are already unable to cope with domestic demand. Newspapers will close, small publishers will fold, and all we will have left to us is an internet that is censored by corporations.

All of this will hit the financially vulnerable first, those unable to afford growing subscription rates or better internet packages, and it’s a strange, dark time when the people of the richest nation in the world literally cannot afford words. This hearkens back to the Dark Ages, when a single book cost a month’s salary, or when the Church burned William Tyndale at the stake for printing an English version of the Bible that the average person could read. It is chilling stuff, and speaks of the fear of enlightenment and free thought that so many in this country share.

If we expand our gaze to beyond the miasma of American political intrigue, we see that fiction banned this and last year centered around the fear of LGBTQ characters and honest depictions of sexual relationships. “There is a really worrying trend of popular pressure forcing children’s books off shelves,” said Jodie Ginsberg, a Banned Books Week campaign organizer. “In 2017, we can read what we like but there is a different kind of censorship in operation, not coming from the state but from an outraged public. We really need to be aware and wary of it and we’re not, sufficiently.”

Meanwhile, Aljazeera reports that 81 journalists have been killed this year, with over 250 more currently imprisoned, an unprecedented number. The International Federation of Journalists put out its annual report on the 31st, stating that “self-censorship was widespread and … impunity for the killings, harassment, attacks and threats against independent journalism was running at epidemic levels.”

These are just several glaring examples of a continually growing problem. We see the effects of this war on words every day, as we try to talk to our friends and family members across the aisle only to find that they have been given a whole different set of words than us. And when we try to sound the alarm on this war on words, they call our words fake.

Make no mistake, this is a war on words and a war with words, and the only thing that puts us ahead is this: we know how to use words better than they do. And really, in any war, isn’t that all that really matters? This is the sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black, and it’s time for us to switch to our dominant hand and finish this.

What Wordsmiths Can Do

So what can we do in 2018 to make sure that we are using our skills? We do what we always do: we write. We write even when it seems dangerous to write. We write because we know that words scare them, that they know words can take them down. At the very, very least, our words will bear witness to their injustice for future generations and act as a warning. If we are the ones recording history, then we win regardless.

Here’s the thing, though. You have to be unafraid of sharing your words, wielding them like a goddamn fire juggler. They aren’t going to do much good sitting in a drawer, on a hard drive, in journals by the bed. You’re going to have to get them out there, into the hands of other people, lighting the beacons and demanding other people stand up and strap in. In 2018, wordsmiths around the country need to be in their smithies, banging away at stories, sharpening and tempering words for the battles ahead.

This can be scary if you’re on your own, so find a community. The internet is still full of wonderful people just waiting to help you along. Or you can go to a bookstore or coffee shop and make friends with the regulars. DM me if you need a pep talk, I’m here. We need to look out for each other. We need to help each other make bold statements that might get us in trouble and we need to offer to be beta readers and editors to help polish those statements, and then we need to submit to small independent newspapers, magazines, journals and presses who share our values and that’s how we build an empire of words.

These don’t have to be blatantly political words, and you don’t even need to have very many of them. Pioneers Press! published a chapbook by Adam Gnade in 2013 called “The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Fighting the Big Motherfucking Sad.” It is small and powerful and full of hope, and probably one of the best examples of words fighting back that I know. Here’s a segment that I come to for inspiration when things get hard or I feel uncreative, and I leave it with you as a blessing as you pack up your words for a journey into the new year:

“Go outside. Scream your name into the Void. Sit in the sun and feel godlike. Cook a nine-course meal for your friends. Ride a train. Ride a bus. Smash something important. Climb a tree and read a book. WRITE a book. Be sweet to a baby and let them know that all big people aren’t a) dead inside, b) angry, or c) afraid of adventure. Make your own everything. Stay up all night and walk around the city alone. Learn that you can be a patriot for the land while still hating the government (be a patriot for the deserts, the plains, the mountains, the buffalo, for Woody Guthrie and Frederick Douglass, for 250 years of good books). Find the best genius, which is the genius that speaks plainly. Grow something from a seed. Talk to a dog. Go visit a friend and throw your knife in the river. Sing. Sleep in. Quit your job. Make a zine. Start a war within yourself. Destroy all uncandid thought. Open your heart to the sky. Live.”
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