The best thing about writing is you have free rein to revise what you’ve written. The worst thing about writing is you can revise what you’ve written.
“Don’t delete anything,” a writing teacher preached. “Create an archive folder and put every version but the final one in it. You can always go back and pick up a phrase, a line, or any part of it.” So I created an archive folder. Have I retrieved a phrase, a line, or anything from that folder? No. Will I keep using it? Yes. There’s always a chance that I’ll look at a piece in progress and wonder if I said it better in an earlier draft.
Artists, especially novices, love to work with oil because, like words on a page, you get do-overs. Too much red in that flower? Paint over it with another shade that softens it or changes its character. So too, with clay. Until a piece is glazed and fired, you can shape and reshape it, add some clay or lop some off, try again and again to get it right.
Writers and artists welcome suggestions from instructors or colleagues: “I’d move that paragraph to the beginning.” Or, “I don’t think you need the last line.” Unless you’re on deadline, there’s no limit to the number of drafts you can make of an essay or poem. The sketchbooks of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and other great artists show them musing, experimenting and fine-tuning images in the run-up to creating a master work.
In life we don’t have that luxury. Words wound. Angry outbursts often take on a life of their own, reverberating in the mind and heart of their target. Regrets and apologies may soften the impact, but some words hit their mark in a place made vulnerable – even rubbed raw – by painful experiences or deeply held insecurities. Those words have incredible lasting power. The power to rip apart relationships. With a mix of good faith and love the rifts may heal, but the words that caused them? They take up permanent residence in that place we all have where we store our worst memories.
How many times have you said something in anger that you wish you could take back? But in life there’s no delete key, no way to paint over a remark or retort. You can soften or expand on what you said, but you can’t erase the pain you caused. With words you write or a work of art in progress you can do that before you publish or display it. You can reflect, delve deeper into the subject and incorporate what you’ve learned into the final product. But once spoken you have no control over what comes next. Are your words misconstrued? Do they start a vitriolic exchange you didn’t bargain for? Do they change the nature of your relationship with the listener, and cause a ripple effect that affects your relationship with family, friends or colleagues?
My mom used to say, “bite your tongue,” when in the heat of an argument angry words might be prophetic, like: “I wish you would leave and never come back.” Too late. While you may have overstated the case, some authentic intent was voiced.
Hesitating before you speak – okay, the good old counting to ten, taking a breath, whatever – could spare you and others pain, confusion and long-lasting repercussions. After you speak? Watch out: Those words may cause unintended consequences. Look around: Is the conversation private? Should it be?
How many of us have lost a friend – or worse, created a rift with a sibling – in reaction to a comment that pierced our protective shield?
“She had the nerve to criticize my marriage? I told her after two divorces she wouldn’t be my go-to person for marital advice.”
“What did she say to that?”
“Well…we haven’t spoken since then. That was months ago. I guess I hit a nerve. What a shame – we were such close friends. I’m getting up the nerve to call her.”
We write and rewrite our words; paint and repaint our artwork; add and subtract clay and rework the shape of our sculptures. But spoken words can’t be retracted. Can we explain, elaborate and when needed, apologize? Yes. But when our words hit a tender spot deep in the recesses of someone’s psyche those words can and often do last long after they’re spoken – even a lifetime – no matter how many apologies, clarifications or olive branches follow.
Before you speak, especially when treading on emotionally charged ground in a relationship you value, take a moment to soften or swallow your words. Because in life, unlike art, there are no do-overs.