Years ago, the wife of the married man I was seeing gave me a sort of maternal talking-to, which was generous on her part, if not a bit perverse, and which in some weird way, made sense: she was thirty years older than I was—slightly older, in fact, than my own mother. The age difference and the power differential between this man and myself; my complete lack of self-worth, in spite of or perhaps at the root of my tremendous sense of entitlement; and this woman’s long suffering all contributed to what any sane person could see was a totally stereotypical situation all around. I remain ashamed of it to this day—but that doesn’t mean I won’t talk, or write, about it.
Sick people attract sick people, and that’s what this man and I both were, at the time. One of our trademark symptoms? Suggestive language. Open-ended statements with a dozen implications. Pretty emails. Speech acts that seemed to accomplish two, three, four things at once. You deserve each other, she told me. Why use these long and evocative phrases, she asked, when a simple, declarative sentence will do?
I have never forgotten her question, or how it made me feel. I was living in Telluride, Colorado, at the time, and had no Internet service at home. Both she and her husband lived out of state, but were within half a day’s drive, allowing for frequent visits and meetings with him at a halfway point. I read her question on the screen of a computer at the public library. It was the dead of winter, and I walked back through the exquisitely staged little western town, a lovely caped and planed empire of stone and snow, to the house I was renting for the year. There, every morning, out back in the cold, and sometimes in four feet of snow and my pajamas, I smoked one cigarette—not because I liked them, or wanted to smoke, but because I had purposefully cultivated a small addiction in order to get myself out of bed in the morning. Without it, I think I might not have moved for months. Those were dark, humiliating days. An older man who lived across the street had once seen my paramour pay a visit. This neighbor used to perch himself outside on my porch, right outside my door, leaning up against the railing with his arms over his chest and his head cocked as if he knew me; or he would stand in a similar posture in the street below the house, as he looked up at my window: wasn’t I generally available for such favors to old, white-haired men? His posture, his very presence there, suggested it was a given. I only ever chatted politely with him. I can scarcely believe the humiliations my younger self endured without flinching or speaking up or changing her life. Twice, I met the married man in motels so seedy and at such odd hours that I was mistaken for a prostitute by the front desk clerks. Or maybe I was being called exactly what I was; there were occasions, after all, when this man threw cash—presumably for me, though we never spoke of it—on the bed. One of the motels he’d arranged for us was so seamy, an exposed and broken bedspring cut open the side of my leg.
Why shouldn’t I slap you across the face? his wife once asked me over the telephone. This was muddy gray spring. By this time she had left the man, and we were talking regularly but infrequently. She wanted to drive up to see me and have a face-to-face, whereupon she certainly could have and probably should have slapped me, but her aforementioned question about the way I spoke and wrote had the same effect. I was suddenly and thoroughly ashamed. It was a shame that grew and intensified over time, like a burn. Shame seems to me a little like depression in this respect—not something you want to live with for long, but occasionally a pretty good teacher.
Why not use simple, declarative sentences? she asked. Well, I’ll tell you why not: declarative sentences are the boring ones, for the dull-headed. I learned and sensed this immediately, in first grade at St. Ann’s School in Cleveland, Ohio, 1981. Interrogative and exclamatory, as words themselves, had more syllables, and as sentence types, had some purpose other than mundane pronouncement. Imperative sentences? Those didn’t count. Those were rude, and nobody used them. I certainly didn’t have the authority to use them.
I had similar insights into what I simultaneously learned were four other sentence types in the English language: simple, compound, complex, compound complex. I memorized them, and they always appeared in my mind in this order, a progression of sophistication representing a sort of evolution of thought. The slower, less interesting people without much to say would always use simple, declarative sentences. The more refined and intellectual a person’s thoughts, the more she would need a compound-complex sentence; perhaps—do you need an example of one?—even one that contained an interrogative or exclamatory phrase. Simple, declarative sentences reveal a simple, declarative mind. Even worse, and somewhat paradoxically, they leave a person open to attack, for there is also this about them: they are so naked. Who would ever presume to declare something? To share a simple statement? It’s exactly like—imagine the forthrightness and honesty required—speaking for oneself. It’s like facing someone head-on, with your hands up and your palms open: “I’m hungry.” “I love you.” “That hurts my feelings.” “Something feels bad.” Imagine the risk involved if the person before you is one whose ideas and beliefs might be at odds with your own. If I say, simply and clearly, “I disagree with you,” or “You can’t talk to me that way,” or “I think you’re full of horseshit,” the person to whom I’m speaking might conclude I’m not a very likeable person. Not pleasing to be around. Not the kind of girl, or woman, who will exercise syntactical acrobatics to make you feel good about yourself.
“You’re not the kind of girl who will just let a man kiss her because she doesn’t want to be mean,” this man once told me, minutes before he first kissed me. Despite my “insights” on sentence types at a young age, I heard this, and in fact, much of what he said, in the imperative mood. Ok, Mister, if you say so.
I had always been, if nothing else, an outwardly nice and likeable girl. Inoffensive. (Interesting, the way clinging desperately to being inoffensive both directly and indirectly led to a world of hurt for so many people.) In fact, this married man’s wife was the same woman who, during that same horrible season, encouraged me to learn some assertiveness, to perhaps take a class on it, or join a group of codependents in recovery. She recognized and cared enough—even about me—to point out that if there was dishonesty in my evasive speech (and there was), there was also simpering, pathetic timidity. There is a difference I didn’t appreciate between speech that makes you vulnerable, and speech that opens you to attack.
A speaker of the simple, declarative sentences of the type she described is not attempting to be liked or likeable—or indeed, loved—and is not attempting to hide, to control, to influence, or to manipulate. To say “I’d like you to listen to me” or “I was wrong” or “Oooh, I like that” is to notice something, and to use a few words to illuminate for someone else that you have noticed it, without impressing upon them any secondary—or, indeed, tertiary—agenda. They are not statements made with the expectation of getting something in return, though sometimes, depending upon whom you’re speaking to, there may be a response—even one that makes you happy or helps you in some way.
Of course, there is a place for the compound-complex sentence, for rhetorical sophistication, for persuasion, for suggestion. As a teacher, I like using subordinating conjunctions in deliberate ways to encourage critical thinking, to challenge my own thesis, to provoke uncertainty, to push analysis in new directions: take any statement of belief and, one at a time, add “although,” “even if,” “as long as,” “provided that,” “unless,” etc., and complete each new sentence as best you can, in order to challenge your assumptions and examine the issue at hand from many angles. It’s amazing to witness even my own resistance in this grammar exercise. But to use self-conscious rhetoric, persuasion, or suggestive speech as an all-purpose tool would be like carrying around a fork and using it for writing, brushing my teeth, starting the car, and waving hello.
“Mean what you say, and say what you mean,” my wise little sister will sometimes remind me. Yes, whether or not we must mean what we say is a staggeringly complex philosophical question, but I am interested in the pointed and unavoidable personal responsibility here, in addition to the epistemological and linguistic difficulty. In fact, the philosophical notion that what we say and mean in everyday speech has a direct influence on and power over what we can philosophically say and mean is exactly my point: The times in my life when I have been most unwell have been both marked and created by using a certain kind of language in my interpersonal relationships. It was confused and manipulative because I was confused and manipulative. And I became increasingly confused and manipulative because my words were so. If, there in Telluride I was evasive and seemed always to be hedging, it was because I was dodging my very self. There are all kinds of engaging intellectual reasons to be cynical about our everyday “ordinary speech.” Motives in “ordinary speech” are considered conscious or unconscious, and hidden motives can be hidden from the speaker herself. Anyone among us who has had the opportunity of retrospection knows very well that we can often think we understand our own motives, and yet be curiously in the dark about what’s driving us to talk and behave in certain ways. But whatever your level of cynicism about “ordinary speech” and the potential for precision with a tool as slippery as language, you must admit that, boring though they may be, dull-headed though they may seem, there are some types of sentences that are more clear and true than others, and it is possible to utter them. Just as there are times when “right speech” may be temporarily impossible, when it is best to say nothing at all and instead to be silent and figure out what you need to say before you say it.
Even in daily life, most of us are unaccustomed to using language without an agenda. I’ll sidestep the tiresome matter of political rhetoric, for the moment, and simply ask you to try to imagine an advertisement—on TV or onscreen in a pop-up ad—that is the equivalent of a simple, declarative sentence. Or think of Facebook: just see by perusing my “likes” how savvy and intelligent I am. Simple, declarative sentences—the kind described by the now ex-wife of the aforementioned married man—aren’t trying to sell anything. “I’m uncomfortable with that.” “I am sure.” “I’m going to mow the lawn.” Let me be clear, here. Certainly we can imagine a situation at a dinner table when “I’d like some salt, please,” is supposed to be heard as “This soup is pretty bland,” or “I could have done better,” or “It’s not like my mother’s,” depending on the backstory and context. That’s when “I’d like some salt, please,” is doing two things at once. When I say “simple, declarative sentence,” I’m talking about the sentence that has, more or less, no message other than the information relayed in the sentence. I used to think that the smarter you are, the less likely you are able to—or even believe it’s possible to—speak in such a way. It is.
In my mid-twenties, however, legally but far from anything actually resembling adulthood, I was too self-absorbed and entitled to understand that not everyone was a “reader” or audience of my life. There wasn’t actually a camera off stage left recording my performance for posterity’s awe and appreciation. I didn’t understand that to engage with other human beings as though I were creating a text for them to study was at minimum unkind, not least of all to myself, whose real needs and feelings were being dismissed with every well-crafted, self-possessed exchange.
A couple of years ago, my ex-husband and I dubbed a certain kind of talking “cue-talking.” It’s something we all know how to do. It’s the kind of talk that “does two things at once”: “I was volunteering at the Animal Rescue Shelter the other day, when I suddenly realized it’s been raining every day for weeks!” or “When I was in school in New Haven, there was this café I used to go to every day with the best black bean soup.” We quickly became despairingly aware of our own patterns of communicating and the myriad forms of cue-talking we’d mastered in our lives. We were experts. It was mortifying. There are so many ways of cue-talking: the clothes we wear, the tattoos we publicly display, our “likes” on Facebook . . . but there is only one way to speak in simple, declarative sentences. And it isn’t always easy, especially when it’s not about salt, or mowing the lawn, or remarking on the weather. Yes, there are ways to speak that are more, rather than less, clear; more, rather than less, direct; and more, rather than less, hurtful, evasive, and deceptively open-ended. Still, as one’s life experiences become increasingly filled with other people and complicated interpersonal relationships, these so-called simple, declarative sentences are not only naked—and potentially embarrassing—they are also quite difficult to discover, let alone say out loud.
“I hate you,” was, I am truly sorry to say, the simple and final sentence I delivered to the married man with whom I was once involved. I left it on his voicemail nearly a decade ago, and haven’t exchanged a single word with him since. My father, whom I called for help and advice at the time (and with whom, you can imagine, I had a rather awful conversation, explaining what I’d been about for the previous year), gave me this advice: “If you can’t stop talking to him, not even God can help you.” My father is not a religious—or even agnostic—man. I don’t know what moved him to say this, but it hit me hard, and I took it seriously. I think in part what he meant was something more secular, something that, oddly enough, a spiritual teacher told me years later: “Communication is basically a tool for the sane.” She was advising me not to engage in or trust emails or prolonged conversation with people who were clearly not using communication tools in a healthy and productive way.
After that terrible year in Colorado, after leaving that simple, aforementioned voicemail, I went formally into silence, which I now do regularly for two, six, eight, even ten days at a time, in an environment where others have taken a similar vow. When I’m not talking to anyone, or even making eye contact with anyone, it can get pretty tricky attributing blame to other people for my own thoughts and feelings; it becomes impossible, after a time, to avoid myself. It’s powerful medicine, and part of a practice of self-inquiry I intend to continue all the days of my life. But I can’t go through all of life under a vow of silence. There are times when silence can be as poisonous as speech. “As long as a word remains unspoken, you are its master; once you utter it, you are its slave.” So said Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Andulusian philosopher and neoplatonic sage of the eleventh century. I would forego the master/slave terminology, myself, but there is some peculiar truth in these words. When I take a feeling and give it a house to live in—a house of language—it can take on a life of its own, one that renders me vulnerable to how others will perceive it and respond to it. A word unspoken, it seems, can be as manipulative a defense mechanism as a word spoken too prettily.
They say one of the difficult things about overcoming obesity is that you have to eat. You can’t stop eating the way you can stop drinking gin, for example. Your relationship to the “drug” of choice (in this case, food) must be reformulated in a healthy and sustainable way. How does a person who has been accustomed to using language in a destructive, indulgent, and harmful way begin to revise her relationship with words without shutting up completely? Especially if she—as I sometimes do—writes for a living? (Indeed, isn’t that all the more reason to use language in a way that supports life?) Wouldn’t it seem that one who is professionally crafting sentences on the page has some kind of special permission to use words howsoever she chooses? The short answer is yes, of course she does.
What happened after I said “I hate you” on that voice mail was sudden, and thorough: I realized it had maybe been so all the time, and that, worst of all, I had always known it. It was a beautiful summer night, and I was in eastern Connecticut at a boarding school, teaching—of all things—grammar. My work for the day was over; I had called from a long, narrow twin bed. Behind me, three windows were open. I hung up the phone and tried to sleep. The crickets were whirring and occasionally, from down the hall, I heard a heavy door swing and latch shut, or the sound of a toilet flushing. But I couldn’t sleep. There was something I was ready to do, and so had to do, right then. In a single box I took all the gifts this married man had given me—tools, jewelry, hundred-dollar bills he had sneaked into pockets of my jackets and shirts when I wasn’t looking—and placed it in the bed of my truck. I remember my hands were trembling on the steering wheel, not because I was afraid of anything, but because I hadn’t eaten for days (I was still so far from considering the relationship between self-care and right speech). As I drove, I had the thought of hurling the box over a bridge, or throwing its contents one at a time out into a field, but I was too tired, and that seemed like something I’d do while imagining an audience. In the end, I pulled over suddenly and in no particular place, I don’t even remember where. I circled the truck, picked up the box, and dropped it in the weeds on the side of the road.
I used to think the phrase “write your heart out,” meant write until you’re worn out, like your heart might feel after running a long, fast race. I thought it meant, write until you collapse on your desk, exhausted. Now I understand it means something quite different: put your heart in words. Write it out. Write your heart out. First, find this heart of yours; sit still until you do. Not so easy a matter. Then feel your way around in it. What is the one thing in there you cannot, or dare not, say?
Bonnie Nadzam is the author of the novels Lamb and Lions, and co-author of Love in the Anthropocene. Her fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Orion Magazine, Granta, A Public Space, Tin House, The Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.