Words [2]

Melting words

It’s three years since my last blog post. There was a pandemic. Things got crazy out there. And words seemed so … difficult. Loaded. Ephemeral. Not suited to purpose. Often disguising bullshit. It didn’t seem worth the effort to try to say something that couldn’t really be expressed adequately with words.

I did write words in angsty cursive, filling many hard-cover journals bought at the art store. Mostly lists of what I should be doing but don’t quite get to. (Declutter my house! Wash my walls! Contact people! Write a blog entry!!) With the occasional attempt at philosophy. And lots of “I want to blog about that one day!”

I went through awkward phases of purposeful ignorance, hiding out, blocking out, cursing out, checking out. But along the way some magic happened. I learned, with effort, to inhale and exhale with no other focus but to the person (or animal or plant or rock) in front of me at that moment. To feel honoured that I’m in a brief moment of time on a beautiful planet. That, yes, I’m insignificant in the universal scheme of things but yet, here I am with so many levels of consciousness and awareness. And with so many other beings going through it with me. I learned gratitude for all this.

These experiences started to feel so intense that I wanted to share them. But when I tried explaining to people in person, their eyes darted away and they changed the subject. I realized that I needed to write down the words and edit them ruthlessly to figure it out. Maybe I can get words to work after all …

So here goes. Blog 2.0.

Words (1)

Words in so many languages

In my previous blog post on technical writing, I talked about words being at the heart of human creation. They form the ideas that change our physical world. In this post, I want to talk more about how words create change, and how we can use the power of words to start creating change within ourselves.

Look around you. Unless you’re standing in the woods, chances are most everything you see was at one point a discussion between a few people, or an idea somebody got from talking to somebody else. The smartphone or computer you are reading this on. The car you’re driving. The newest breed of cat. Not much in our world is natural anymore. (Google “Anthropocene”). And all this because people keep asking, “What if I did this?” (“What if I get a cute baby python? Wouldn’t that be cool!”)

It’s not just the physical world of course. Our politics, our media, our laws, our knowledge, our perceptions  … EVERYTHING hinges on words. Words and the ideas they represent have supreme power in the human world, and they evolve and grow along with us.

It’s important to remember that words are just tools. They have no morality. They can be used equally for good or for bad. Your newsfeed is no doubt full of stories about bad players using words for all kinds of nefarious purposes, and whole industries are devoted to twisting words to create profit, or worse. (Google “Cambridge Analytica.”) And I’ve noticed that some leaders disavow or discredit the words they say at the same time as they use them to plant horrible ideas (“A lot of people are saying …”) Yep, people use words (and images) in twisted ways these days. It makes sense to be wary of the words you hear or read. It also makes sense to be wary of the words you use about yourself.

Watch your language!

The language you use gives you power, or robs you of it. If you are part of the 99.9% of humanity (estimated) who isn’t a hardened narcissist, chances are you use negative language to define yourself. It’s how most of us were raised, it’s in our environment, it’s drilled into us.

I catch myself using negative language about myself all the time. I am more on top of it now, but it is still a very easy trap to fall into. The “Itty Bitty Shitty Committee” (IBSC) planted in your head is ruthless if you let it be. “I’m not good enough,” “I can’t,” “If only I had done it differently,” “They are way smarter than me,” “I better not say anything,” “It’s what people are saying about me.” You may have similar edicts issued by your own IBSC.

The goal is to recognize when your ISBC is engaged, and try to stop it from wasting your time and energy. It’s an ongoing battle and takes lots of self-knowledge. The process can be helped when you’re open to getting kind feedback from others. (And, on the other hand, you need awareness to know when feedback is not kind and needs to be ignored.)

A few years back a sage teacher told me to write “I will try” many many times on a piece of paper, wrap it around a small rock (obsidian, to cleanse psychic smog) and bury it in the woods. This ceremony sealed it for me: I consciously avoid that expression now, or at least am aware when I say it. I shoulda listened to Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Speaking of shoulda, that’s another word that gives away your power. You can’t change the past, so don’t spend your time worrying about it. Focus on the now and what you can do to make amends and move forward.

I’m now working on the theory that all the non-committal words we use to beat ourselves up and feel inadequate (I’ll try, I should, I can’t) can usually be boiled down to “I don’t want to.” The wishful words (I wish, I hope, I pray, If only) can, if we are being sincere using them, be boiled down to “I want (but I dare not dream it’s possible)”. It would be an interesting world if everyone just said “I want to” or “I don’t want to.” A bit scary and in-your-face, but less complicated with less politics and way more achievement of personal and societal goals.

I’ve had great feedback from caring people over the years, and now I’ve started annoying others by pointing out when their words rob them of power. We all deserve better than to go around wishing and hoping and praying and never doing anything about it.

A very wise woman told me once that we as humans have the power to change everything in our world if we just change our thoughts. At that time in my life I didn’t understand what she meant at all. But she did plant an idea in my head, and now I see her vision. If enough people were more careful with their words and started to use them to change their way of thinking, who knows where it could lead?

Technical Writing

I’ve been a technical writer in software companies for a long long time. This is my attempt to explain what I do and make it exciting! I’m in the job market right now, so this is a necessary blog post (for the portfolio and all).

Here is my take on what technical writers do: we simplify complicated concepts so people can understand them.

Technical writers:

  • Use simple language. Occasionally I use big words, if they are just right. But mostly I use simpler words that more people will understand. This will probably always be my writing style. I think this habit developed when I was young and started learning words that other people didn’t know. It was easier just not to use them, trust me.
  • Are allergic to jargon. Acronyms and arcane technical terms set off my antennae. If I don’t know what something means, chances are the average user won’t. (In the tech world, “users” are the people who actually use the software after it’s bought. If they need to read manuals or use help, chances are they won’t know the latest jargon.)
  • Are logical and a bit OCD. I have a different way of thinking than engineers, because I need to make lateral leaps to condense information. I’m fond of trying to find metaphors and running with them until they don’t work anymore, which is very annoying to some literalists. But, I do need logic to ask the right questions so I can explain things step by step. I like using numbered lists to do this, and making sure topics follow along rationally. I like to order information just so (that’s where the OCD part comes in).
  • Ask, “What would a person do with that?” and other “dumb” questions everybody is afraid to ask. People writing software often work in a small area of the code, so may not have time to think about the big picture or “the user experience” (how users actually use the software in real life). Sometimes there are team members who can explain everything to me (Yay! Love them!) But sometimes everyone on the team is stumped and I need to avoid explanations entirely. I’m not proud when that happens, but it’s not literature I’m writing and there are deadlines.
  • Are sometimes the canaries in the coal mine. If everyone has worked on their little piece of the project and nobody has tried to put it all together logically until the writer comes along, my job is sometimes to say “This isn’t making sense.” Occasionally I uncover a flaw nobody thought of. Sometimes I have to squawk about how I just don’t understand it at all. Luckily not often.

Fun fact! In French, technical writers are called “vulgarisateurs” or “redacteurs.” I’d like to be called a redactive vulgarizer, it kinda makes me feel badass.

Technical writers, like many others in the software industry, can suffer from burnout. It is really easy to start feeling defensive, especially if you’re the only one asking the dumb questions every day and people are too stressed to answer them. As well, we have to accept that our thousand-page magnum opuses (aka manuals) will be stale within a couple of years because technology changes so quickly. With the Internet, I guess we are no longer alone in this. Words have become a giant data storage experiment, and should all have a best-before date given the rapid change we all are going through. (They are stored “forever” though—that is a topic for another post.)

I’m up for being a cheerleader though. In the current age, I’m excited to be engaged in finding clear explanations, with a dash of vulgarization thrown in to get at the big picture. I have come to realize that words create change. If you explain something well enough for people to grasp a new idea, it means that idea can take flight. “What would I do with that?” is a question that has been asked throughout the ages, probably starting with someone wondering why someone else was rubbing two sticks together. The answers to that fundamental question have driven human innovation to astonishing levels.

Thanks for reading to the end. 🙂