Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with Marilyn McEntyre
This is the fourth in our series of interviews with creatives who inspire us by staying craft-focused in a era of easy-to-consume, shareable internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to both find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
Marilyn McEntyre is adamant about the power of a single word. So much so that her newest book, Word by Word, narrows in on the potential of fifteen singular words or phrases to awaken and nurture our spirits. Dr. McEntyre is our favorite kind of cultural warrior. She fights against what's going wrong in the ways we communicate with each other, but she does her fighting by virtue of what she argues for.
We were so honored to hear her thoughts on everything from what we give up when we give in to clickbait, to why we should strive to bring back antiquated words. Thoughtful commentary, insightful observation, and empathetic exchange are typical of the tone that her writing embodies, and the warmth and understanding displayed in her body of work come through just as strongly in the interview answers below.
Upwrite Magazine: In your book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, you exhort readers to rescue and restore language, a depleting resource. What are some practical ways we can do this as both writers and consumers of story?
Dr. Marilyn McEntyre: Several simple practices seem to me to be promising restoration strategies that any of us could undertake:
- Choose words carefully and thoughtfully. Occasionally, in conversation or writing, pause over a word to comment on its nuances, its interesting history, some of the ways it's been misused.
- Have the metaconversation--conversation about conversation. Calling attention to what's going on with words themselves--how often a politician uses the word "great," for instance, without any specifics about what greatness means--can help raise awareness within your own circles about how to listen to words more attentively and critically.
- Reclaim particular words that have fallen into disuse--not with the objective of sounding like Jane Austen, but gently, where appropriate, reintroducing words like "amiable," for instance, or "vexing" or "satisfactory" that open up a middle ground between the hyperbolic terms toward which Americans tend to gravitate.
- Practice slow speech the way many now advocate for "slow food." Not in an exaggerated way, but in a deliberate way, resist the temptation or pressure to hurry through presentations or conversations or sentences. Enunciate clearly. Give your words full weight.
- Read aloud with family and friends. Have "read-around" evenings. Hearing words from good writers and speaking them is a way of reintegrating them into common use.
Upwrite: We live in an age of clickbait--a time when nourishing craft wanes in favor of promoting fast and convenient content. Of what are we opting out when we opt into clickbait?
ME: We're forfeiting credibility, nuance, authenticity, the truly invitational dimension of communication that summons thought and care. We're sacrificing relationship for marketing. We're commodifying discourse.
Upwrite: In a fast-paced culture like ours, we might feel we’re missing out when we take time to focus on refining our craft. What encouragement would you offer to those who long to wield precise and powerful words in such a time as this?
ME: As I said above, I'm in favor of a "slow speech" movement. At least to take the extra sentence to qualify, the extra minute to define, the extra five minutes to pursue a question a little further by raising new ones.
In some ways, I'd say also that silences help. Silences in the midst of noise can be powerful. To leave an extra beat before speaking, to remain silent until asked, and then speak slowly, to gently insist on qualifying and nuancing, and to refuse the soundbite all seem to me like important forms of activism.
Upwrite: As a people called to ignite and sustain hope, how can we change the culture around us without being too critical? Is there a way to refine culture compassionately?
ME: Yes, and that's such an important question. None of these efforts will work if they're undertaken in a judgmental, elitist, or effete way. What I would hope we could share with each other is love of language, delight in its possibilities, gratitude for the gift of words. Taking our own pleasure in conversation and enjoying the process is a key part of helping care for words.
Upwrite: Other than your own books, are there any resources you would recommend to those interesting in caring for words in a culture of lies?
ME: Yes. There are many. I love Barry Sanders' A is for Ox, and highly recommend it. George Steiner's many essays--notably those in Language and Silence--are wonderful reflections on language. Good poets always provide encouragement and invitation to use language more attentively--Mary Oliver, Christian Wiman, Wendell Berry, Paul Willis, Naomi Shihab Nye, and so many others. Reading poetry is a powerful dimension of word work. And writing it!
You can (and definitely should) purchase our favorite work by Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by clicking here. Thanks again to Dr. McEntyre for taking time out of her busy schedule to be interviewed -- she's a bit of a personal hero around here.