Chip MacGregor

September 19, 2013

More Words of Wisdom from Joyce Magnin



Below is the second half of the text from a speech given by the well known novelist Joyce Magnin. Part I ran on September 19th.



I soon became enamored with the words of Emily Dickinson and to this day I still am often awestruck with the power she could convey in so few well-chosen words. Her words, although I most of the time didn’t get what she was saying, pierced me and helped me to transcend my life. I learned to dwell in Possibility, as she called it and to concern myself with Circumference.

Circumference, a powerful word she used often, a double metaphor that is both an extension, think of the circumference of the earth and a limit, think of the sand on the shoreline.

Emily Dickinson used the word to contain some things that transcended space and time like ecstasy, and grief and I believe helped her understand God, and to touch the sublime.

Her words had the power to stun me, amuse me, and capture a feeling I couldn’t quite explain. Emily taught me that

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope. Emily Dickinson’s words, written long before I was born instructed me and healed me. This is the power of words.

And then I began to write, learning the difference between the spoken and the written word, I chose the written word.

Spoken words for me were hurtful most of the time, silly and uncertain coming from mouths that I

couldn’t trust,

wouldn’t trust

and sometimes hated.


Emily Dickinson said her “wars are laid away in books.”


I understood what she was saying because I knew that my wars were and forever will be laid away in books. It is in books that I found myself, my family, my friends, my God, my illusions and lies, my truth and sincerity, my joys. My battles and wars that I did not fight alone.

I wrote bad teenage poetry fraught with angst and turmoil and anger and sadness. I wrote about my father’s leather belt and my mother’s aloofness. I wrote about what it was like to become Aunt Joyce at age six and know somehow that this infant they allowed me to hold in my arms was part of me and I a part of her. I wrote about what it was like to go to school with pink welts from my father belt etched on my legs and back like railroad tracks.

I wrote about memories and feelings I was told from well meaning teachers that I was too young to experience. Teachers who didn’t know the violence and loneliness I endured at home and accused me of plagiarism. Yet I wrote and continued to write. I wrote in despair that I was even born and then in the next sentence the joy and delight and blessing of having lived.

This was the power of words for me.

I wrote about Circumference—God who because I was sixteen or seventeen or eighteen I believed I understood because I was also reading the great thinkers, Dickinson, Dostoyevsky, Camus, Hemmingway, Voltaire, Twain, Capote, Alcott, so many others I can’t name them all and so by extension I was also an expert.

I read Sylvia Plath—a poet who nearly killed me .She convinced me that words would make me crazy and the greatest privilege of life was having the capacity to end it when I saw fit. My life I thought was in my own hands. And so I attempted to end my life at age seventeen.

But because of the Word I learned that my life was not in a bell jar but in Christ.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

But even this fledgling faith was something I hid and protected because I had to reject the faith of my father and mother because there was something terribly wrong with the way they Worked Out their Salvation. I didn’t want them to damage that part of me also. Oh, I professed faith in Christ at age nine, but not because Jesus loved me but because I was afraid of going to Hell, convinced my father would kill me.

But still, words have power and I experienced many times over a kind of soul death with them. Oh, my parents I believe were doing what they thought best most of the time, but still, damage was done. And so I found solace and understanding in books and searched for ways to understand my spiritual wars as well. The funny thing is, I didn’t always look for or find the answers in scripture, I found the answers on a quest with Frodo and Gandalf, with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, with Sitting Bull at Wounded Knee with Maya Angelou in I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Words are powerful and not to be toyed with. Writers have responsibility.

And I was beginning to grasp this.

When Emily Starr, the protagonist of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon talked about the flash, as she called it, that searing instant of inspiration and she just HAD no choice but to write—I understood. I also had no choice but to write.

This is what the power of Words did for me. Words created my identity.

In high school I was given another mentor, a teacher named Nancy Allan who believed in my words and talent and encouraged me to enter a writing contest. At the time my brother was in Viet Nam fighting a war I didn’t understand and so I wrote about a soldier who died. My little story placed first in this contest and again I was affirmed. I suppose now if I read the piece I would wince at how terribly written it must have been but still, the judges saw something, a spark and that was rewarded. My parents never knew.

When Emily Dickinson wrote

A word is dead

When it is said

Some say.

I say it just begins

To live that day.

I learned that words were alive. The scriptures tell us this is true.

Words breathe. Maya Angelou said that Words are Things. Think about that for a second or two. Words are THINGS, they have bulk and mass and volume. They are in us and on us, in our hair on our clothes, stuck to the bottom of our shoes. Words are THINGS.

When I read the poem

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I learned the power of words. And how words created images. Concrete images. So much depends on WORDS.

When my father or mother would spew hurtful words at me I learned also that ingesting harmful words is powerful. Because they are things that stick. When my dog would come home after a romp through the fields I would have to pick the burrs out of her fur. Words are like that. They stick.

When the pastor says the benediction after his message I am covered, sheltered, umbrellaed with words. Words that stick. Words written thousands of years ago, ancient words still stick, still have the power to shield.

And as I grew and finally, mercifully found myself on the other side of adolescence I became more and more serious about my gift, my words, about writing. And I found another mentor.

In college. His name was Robert Hill and he taught me about writing. One day after reading my words he said, “This is good. You have an ear for the music of language.”

Again I was smitten. This time not only with the joy of words but also with the sound of my own writing. It was as though I was given my gift twice. God reached down and confirmed once again that this was the path. I determined even more to remain true to the gift at any cost, and much later even at the cost of enduring a difficult marriage.

I wrote even more after that, sometimes at a fevered pitch as though the words couldn’t come fast enough. I wrote short stories that were about the life I saw around me. I didn’t dig very far. It was for me, what Eudora Welty said, ““Writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life.”

Stumbling upon cause and effect. Yes. This was the power of words. Putting one word next to another word began to make it possible for me to see how my life was going, what interested me and what did not. When I really had no sense of where I was going I continued on. Stumbling toward meaning.

My own stories of the time, though most likely terribly written for the most part almost always had at least one instance of brilliance. A moment, a sentence  suspended as on a gossamer web for me when I knew that the words I had just scribbled on paper or tapped out on a typewriter came from somewhere beyond myself yet inside myself. Circumference. It is as though I was the eye of the hurricane moving slothfully on as the words whirled around me. Words are powerful. Words are caught in the wind.

If your words don’t sometimes surprise you than perhaps you really haven’t written yet.

Words are things.

Words appear to writers like drops of rain or snowflakes or grains of sand. Think for a moment about how many words you know? Would you be astounded to know that the average adult knows about 30,000 words? Does it seem like enough? Does that begin to fill the bucket? Is 30,00 words enough to contain God. Of course not. This is why we are told in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit groans on our behalf in words unknowable.

I learned that words are not always concrete. That their meaning can fluctuate. That context is what gives our words their meaning. Even so called nonsense words have meaning when the context is understood.

Remember Alice in Wonderland when she found the poem?

The Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

This was Alice’s impression after she read the poem.

‘It seems very pretty,’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate’

There is something about our brains, the portion of our brain called Broca’s  Area that endeavors to understand language all the time. That seems to continue functioning even when we are not using language. This is why writers are always writing. We have perhaps an overzealous Broca’s Area. This is why jogging or doing needlecraft, a creative thing that doesn’t involve language is good for writers. Broca’s Area continues to process even when we believe we are not.

After college my love for words continued to grow. I read and read and read everything I could sometimes to my dismay. Sometimes I would put a book down and say. “How. How did he, how did she write that?” What’s wrong with me? Perhaps I am kidding myself into thinking I have talent. Does a love for words and books necessarily mean I can write?

The only answer I could give was NO. I needed to learn to wield words with skill and art and craft.

And this is my charge to all of you. It is not enough to love words, to even be gifted. You must learn your craft, take it seriously and study.

You must be readers. I cannot imagine how anyone can claim she is a writer unless she is also a reader.

It’s true now that I don’t have the time to read as much as I would like but I do know that having been a reader all through my life has taught me more in some ways than any writing class I might have taken.

Words are things.

Words have power.

Words are to the author what paint is to the artist, clay to the potter, notes to the musician. Words are our medium.

Words are THINGS.


About Joyce Magnin:

“I am the author of seven novels — five adult novels and two middle grade readers. I never wanted to do anything else but write, and every day I wake up astonished that I get to do what I always dreamed about. My days are filled with words and images along with the usual family stuff. I have three children: Rebekah who is married to Joshua — they have three of the most adorable boys on the planet in Lemuel, Cedar and Soren. My daughter Emily Kate is a lovely young woman anthropologist. And my son Adam is fourteen and a student — he’s a genius who loves frogs and lizards and fish and plants. He amazes me.
“What else do you want to know? I have never eaten a scallop. I love cream soda. Drink way too much coffee. I do not like elevators but I do enjoy needle arts and of course books. I prefer jazz over country (no offense), milk chocolate over dark, but not roller coasters although my life has often resembled a roller coaster ride. One of my life’s desires is to meet music artist Amy Grant so I can tell her she saved my life.”


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  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    Most of all, thank you for revealing just enough of your personal story to let me know I am not alone. And yes, everything you said about words and books. Yes.

  • joyce Magnin says:

    Aww you guys are the best. I must tell my Amy Grant story one day. If anyone knows how I could meet her I will eat a scallop dinner with whoever wants to come.

  • Julie Surface Johnson says:

    I love you, Joyce Magnin, and am grateful to Amy Grant for whatever she said/sang that saved you for the rest of us. Agnes Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books.

  • Peggotty says:

    Ms. Magnin, may I buy you a scallop dinner?

  • joyce Magnin says:

    Thanks Ron. Wow! Learn how to learn. I guess we never really stop. It’s all about surrender and paying attention. Associations and gladness. It’s about seeing what we are meant to see.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    Horay! Thank you Joyce. I think the most difficult thing for all of us to learn is how to learn. We think we know, then we learn some new tidbit, which leads to another. I now wonder if I’ll ever know even a small percentage of what all a writer should know. But I keep trying, learning, trying again. It consumes me now, but I can’t think of a more pleasant addiction. Thanks again!

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