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Words that laugh and cry

Many years ago I came across an editorial that was a celebration of language and contained one of the briefest and best lessons on writing I have ever read. This is from the March 16, 1890 edition of The Sun, a New York City newspaper made great by one of the greatest editors of American journalism, Charles Dana.

Words that laugh and cry

 Did it ever strike you that there was anything queer about the capacity of written words to absorb and convey feelings? Taken separately they are mere symbols with no more feeling to them than so many bricks, but string them along in a row under certain mysterious conditions and you find yourself laughing or crying as your eye runs over them. That words should convey mere ideas is not so remarkable. “The boy is fat,” “the cat has nine tails” are statements that seem obviously enough within the power of written language. But it is different with feelings. They are no more visible in the symbols that held them than electricity is visible on the wire; and yet there they are, always ready to respond when the right test is applied by the right person. That spoken words, charged with human tones and lighted by human eyes, should carry feelings, is not so astonishing. The magnetic sympathy of the orator one understands; he might affect his audience,  possibly, if he spoke in a language they did not know. But written words: How can they do it! Suppose, for example, that you possess this remarkable facility in grouping language, and that you have strong feelings upon the subject, which finally you determine to commit to paper. Your pen runs along, the words present themselves, or are dragged out, and fall into their places. You are a good deal moved; here you chuckle to yourself, and half a dozen lines further down a lump comes into your throat, and perhaps you have to wipe your eyes. You finish, and the copy goes to the printer. When it gets into print a reader sees it. His eye runs along the lines and down the page until it comes to the place where you chuckled as you wrote; then he smiles, and six lines below he has to swallow several times and snuffle and wink to restrain an exhibition of weakness. And then some one else comes along who is not so good a word juggler as you are, or who has no feelings, and swaps the words about a little, and twists the sentences; and behold the spell is gone, and you have left a parcel of written language duly charged with facts, but without a single feeling.

            No one can juggle with words with any degree of success without getting a vast respect for their independent ability. They will catch the best idea a man ever had as it flashes through his brain, can hold on to it, to surprise him with it long after, and make him wonder that he was ever man enough to have such an idea. And often they will catch an idea on its way from the brain to the pen point, turn, twist, and improve on it as the eye winks, and in an instant there they are, strung hand in hand across the page, and grinning back at the writer: “This is our idea, old man; not yours!”

            As for poetry, every word that expects to earn its salt in poetry should have a head and a pair of legs of its own, to go and find its place, carrying another word, if necessary, on its back. The most that should be expected of any competent poet in regular practice is to serve a general summons and notice of action on the language. If the words won’t do the rest for him it indicates that he is out of sympathy with his tools.

            But you won’t find feelings in written words unless there were feelings in the man who used them. With all their apparent independence they seem to be little vessels that hold in some puzzling fashion exactly what is put into them. You can put tears into them, as though they were so many little buckets; and you can hang smiles along them, like Monday’s clothes on the line, or you can starch them with facts and stand them up like a picket fence; but you won’t get the tears out unless you first put them in. Art won’t put them there. It is like the faculty of getting the quality of interest into pictures. If the quality exists in the artist’s mind he is likely to find the means to get it into his pictures, but if it isn’t in the man no technical skill will supply it. So, if the feelings are in the writer and he knows his business, they will get into the words; but they must be in him first. It isn’t the way the words are strung together that makes Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech immortal, but he feelings that were in the man. But how do such little, plain words manage to keep their grip on such feelings? That is the miracle.


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