A professor once told me that true authors need to learn French and cultivate a taste for Bordeaux and Rachmananav. He said that anyone who wants to know the cost of a word should buy a good fountain pen and a Moleskin and think twice before scribbling out a few lines on a cheap notebook.
So, I bought myself a six pack of Widmer, spent a day speaking in Pig Latin and played the Greatest Hits of The Band. I decided that the apostles Paul and Simon were right in the notion that the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls and that much of academia is designed not to cultivate a love of language, but a dissection of it.
In other words, I learned to hate words. I learned to be ashamed of my voice and to play pretend with my vocabulary. I learned to like, you know, try and avoid big words and stuff. Then I learned to wear the heavy academic jargon like a necklace before the elite crowd, only to wonder if they could recognize it was gaudy costume jewelry from a kid playing make-believe.
I didn’t recover my voice until I began teaching. I found it impossible to play pretend around a group of people who only cared about whether I cared about them and I cared about the subject. I couldn’t be the teacher who pretended to know (or care to know) about the slang and they weren’t impressed with a word like “pulchritudinous.”
I began to ask them to find their own voice that had been silenced in a sea of worksheets. I found that their voices were often rougher than I’d imagined, shaped by more pain than I’ve experienced and filled with a strength that I hadn’t seen. I found that their voices weren’t always expressed in written format and that some of the most powerful messages required a canvas or a podcast or a dance or a skit.