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Neither faith nor doubt are instinctual. Each is cultivated from the gradual outpouring of words. A single word, sentence, or phrase may float past us with little notice. But over time, each shouted taunt or whispered praise blasts over us like grains of sand. From both within and without we are eroded, sculpted; the people we might have been are molded into the people we become.
I learned to read fairly young. By three, I was mispronouncing words in my mother's nursing textbooks. I mimicked the curves of letters as words blossomed on the margins of my Barbie coloring books. I read voraciously, usually without much concern for pictures on the page. They could not match the images that drew themselves in my mind's eye.
By third or fourth grade, I had learned that to be smart was to be different. That being different made you a target for ridicule and shame. My bullies were but scared kids themselves, but their words had power, the power to destroy, to ruin. I chose to stick to myself, to keep company only with others who hid among the shadows. Words sculpted me into an elementary school hermit.
Of course, words also allowed me to explore myself and the world around me in relative safety. I devoured the words of my favorite authors and wanted nothing more than to emulate them. I began my first novel in 7th grade. I wanted to create something as dark and beautiful as my favorite Christopher Pike stories. I showed it to my mother. She sent those first chapters to a friend at a local university. I never read her response. I couldn't handle the assured heartbreak. I knew quite well I "couldn't do it." Why invite criticism?
Still, I loved to write, to twist those 26 characters into strange and unusual combinations. I wrote some poetry. Toyed with fiction. Posted on deadjournal, xanga, whatever "blogging" site was popular at the time. I never really expected anyone to read anything. Looking back, I'm pretty sure I didn't want them to.
Years passed. I stopped writing creatively and started writing academically. The university embraced me. I could put the right words in the right places, could easily meet and often exceed my instructors' standards. I knew how to give them exactly what they wanted. I thought, "I could do this for a living." Praise for my work became a drug for me. I had no high so euphoric as receiving a paper back from a professor full of praise, light correction, and even thoughtful consideration. For the first time, I believed I'd found a place where I belonged.
Then grad school happened. I'd spent a few years out of my element, teaching full-time, but I'd needed more than anything to be back home in academia. If only my professors had felt the same way. They challenged me in ways I couldn't imagine. Was I acceptable? Yes. But I felt as if I was just barely reaching the bar.
Then came my master's thesis. My adviser became more irritated with me which each draft. "Amalie," she once said, "you have a talent for putting together pretty words that don't mean anything." On that day, my dream of becoming a professor shattered all over her office's dirty grey linoleum.
I hated how her words broke me, how they continued to break me, until the day I finally finished. I walked away from grad school with my GPA, if not my ambition, intact. All confidence I'd gained in five years as an undergraduate vanished in six months as I tried to finish one goddamned paper that no one would ever read.
I wrote nothing--fiction, essays, poetry, prose--for almost a year, one of the harshest of my life. I was a woman in crisis, employed, but at just above minimum wage. I had three degrees but used none of them. Worst of all, I didn't believe I deserved anything more.
Slowly, I climbed out of my depression. I realized, in retrospect, what my adviser had been trying to accomplish. She'd wanted to craft me into the kind of thinker, the kind of writer, that she knew I could be. But her words held power, and rather than build me up, they'd eroded all my confidence away. It would be up to me to get it back.
I turned once again to prose. I hoped to express the doubts that followed me like a cluster of vipers snapping at my heels. In writing, I expelled the venom of a life I didn't know I hadn't wanted. I wrangled myself a new job and a brilliant fiancee. I thought maybe, just maybe, I could take my writing seriously again.
The day the doubt lifted, I'd been writing feverishly for hours. My partner and I were at one of our favorite coffee shops, sipping meltaway lattes, when I handed her my laptop. "I've been toying with this short story all day. Read it and give me your opinion?" She put her own sketchpad away and nodded. I headed toward the ladies' room. I couldn't watch her face as she read.
When I came back, she had tears in her eyes. I looked at her in concern, but she lifted her face to me and said, "Baby, it's beautiful." In those three words, the rip in my soul--the one that had torn me apart since that day in my adviser's office--began to heal. I'd given a professor's words the power to destroy me. I'd never thought to let my partner heal me with hers.
Words are powerful. There are still days when I fear the power intrinsic in my voice, in my hands, on the tips of my fingers. Each and every word I say, whether shining and brilliant or dull, dank, and dark, has the power to erode away who another person might be. But it also has the power to sculpt them into the kind of person they want to become.
I only hope it's the latter.