Finding My Way With Words

“How do you spell ensemble?” Sonya asks. Though this weekend phone call isn’t exactly like run of the mille—they don’t usually start off with spelling quizzes—it’s not completely atypical either. I’m sure God blessed with me with a big sister for several reasons, but the most important of them seems to be that He knew she would keep me on my toes.

1,325 miles separate me from Sonya, but I can always count on her to drive me crazy somehow. Why would she expect me to know how to spell anything? Does she not remember my grades in school? Her baby brother, she seems to have forgotten, depends heavily on Microsoft Word’s spell-check when he writes. The sweat pours over my face from my crown to my chin. Adrenaline flows through my veins. Breathe. Some wordsmith you are, I think.

It turns out Sonya’s five-year-old daughter is preparing to model the latest fashion at a church event, and Sonya has embraced this as a learning opportunity—my niece doesn’t know what an ensemble is, but soon she will.

If only I can spell it.

I feel like Atlas with the world on my shoulder, until I’m finally able to provide the correct spelling and definition from memory, and relief sets in.

But why all the stress over a silly word? Why, when rejection letters mount, and I stare down a slew of documents covered in track changes, do I subject myself to the aggravation of caring so deeply about language?

I think it’s because I’ve resolved to find my way through life using writing. As a guy who gets punchy proofreading PowerPoint presentations, it feels like the natural way to plod forward.

I can’t sing, dance, or act. Sometimes, I become tongue-tied during staff meetings. I didn’t inherit my mother’s sharp sense, my sister’s discipline, or my father’s rugged athleticism. Put my in a sporting event, and I turn into Charlie Brown—trying his best to kick the football over and over but always ending up on his back. What I do have is a vivid imagination and a library of fond memories that revolve around reading.

Dallas Morning News aloud for the family. I spent summers in the local library. I wasn’t born an avid reader, but these activities provided a positive outlet for a precarious kid. They shaped me.

In the last few years, I have realized the value of learning through literature. From Cicero to Shakespeare, I find that carefully chosen words can spark the intellect and illuminate the imagination. Books can take readers to entirely new worlds. They can spark curiosity—in my case, a curiosity that, when coupled with hard work, led to internships and ultimately a job in Washington.

I spend my work life reading reports and sorting through data and interacting with policymakers, pundits, and wonks. And the longer I’m here, the more certain I am that regardless of politics or economics, our country will always need individuals who can write well and think critically. So perhaps I’m lucky that my curiosity, my desire to be a reader and a writer—the same things that make Sonya count on me for spelling help on the spot—compel me to stress over selecting just the right word every time.

The challenge may seem unnecessary, but ironically, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And as I’ve embraced the blogosphere as a means of storytelling recently, I’ve realized that the gratification that comes from choosing words so carefully isn’t just internal. The interaction I get there from other writers and bloggers is heartfelt. There’s something inspirational about strangers being willing to provide feedback and encouragement regarding such a personal craft. It becomes somehow collaborative and doubly rewarding.

And the world of words does not care about ethnicity, income, or gender. Writing only asks for originality, and in return, it provides the opportunity to persuade, entertain, and inform. We all yearn for something greater, and for me, there is no greater freedom than the power of self-expression.

Donavan Wilson is a writer who lives in Germantown. He blogs about life and culture at Timon’s Opus.