Hal Zina Bennett, Ph.D.

Bestselling Author ~ Writing Coach

Hal Zina Bennett - Copyrighted photo by John Curry


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The Magic of Language

by Hal Zina Bennett

As I write this, I've recently returned from teaching a writing workshop at Mount Shasta, California, arguably one of the most beautiful areas in the world. The mountain itself rises to more than 14,000 feet and has long been known as a place of power by native peoples throughout the country. Its fame extends across the ocean, where it is considered by many Japanese people to be a sister to Mount Fujiyama. It is one of the volcanos of the Cascade Range and part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire." It's a great place to hold workshops, since it seems to draw highly intuitive and creative people, which certainly makes for an exciting event. Add to this the ambiance of an inviting small conference center, the Josephine Taylor Foundation, and you've got a matchless creative setting. 


Every time I teach I come away with new insights and new questions kindled by the fire of the participants' work. This time the questions for me had to do with why we write. The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is that we write in order to share our knowledge, thoughts and feelings with others. And that suggests publishing. But in all my teaching over the past 15 years, I haven't found that to be the reason most people attend writing workshops. Only a handful of my students have stated that this is primarily what motivates them. Other writing teachers have told me that this is true in their workshops as well-even in workshops for publishing.

If publishing isn't what motivates us, what does? I can only answer that for me and a dozen or so students I've asked. (If you have comments on this, I welcome them. Email me at  halbooks@halzinabennett.com).

As a person who has published more than his share of books (30-some) I probably have a different perspective than writers who have not published. Publishing doesn't excite me half as much as the process of writing does. If you write every day you soon find that language is much more than a way of communicating; it is also a process of questioning, probing, discovering, and reframing our sense of reality.

Often, the act of writing carries us beyond what we believe we know. At the outer edge of our own knowledge, we encounter our own apparent limits. It is here that we start to probe, filling in those blanks and shortcomings we've found in our own awareness. Tiptoeing out into the unknown we challenge the knowledge, feelings and values that we have always counted upon to make sense of our lives, and sometimes we uncover knowledge and insights that we didn't know we possessed.

I recall, for example, writing a poem about my mother's death, which occurred over a dozen years ago. As I did, the language itself carried me back and I remembered details of those last hours at her bedside that I had not only forgotten but had never looked at very closely. A series of forgotten images filled my mind. About twenty minutes after Mother died, I was meditating in a chair beside the bed. Two young doctors came into the room. One was from India, I later learned. As he saw me, he pressed his hands together, as in prayer, bowed slightly and moved past me almost reverently. The second, obviously a westerner, patted me brusquely on the shoulder and asked if I needed anything, perhaps a sedative. I thanked him, but declined his offer. Then the two of them went to Mother's bedside, where they confirmed her death and filled out some papers.

With my main attention focused on my Mother's death, I had filed this event with the doctors away in my mind. Now, years later, as I relived it, I also got in touch with an important insight into what most of us seek at times of great grief. My reaction to the Indian doctor's entrance, as subtle and fleeting as it had been, had brought me a sense of peace and acceptance. In contrast, my reaction to the American doctor's pat on the shoulder and offer of a sedative as naive, mechanical and uncaring.

While none of that went into the poem, being cut in the final rewrites, it was a poignant moment and will probably turn up in another book or article someday. But in that moment was captured a glimpse into two different cultures' ways of approaching death, the one with reverence and compassion, acknowledging the universality of it, the other almost as if it were a disease that could be treated with a pill or a shot. The Indian doctor's gesture offered inner peace; the Western doctor's gesture offered escape with the help of a pill that might numb me to my feelings. Did I think those things out at the moment? No, but today I hold that experience in my heart and call it to mind whenever life presents me with difficult challenges.

Human consciousness researchers claim that our subconscious minds cannot discern between imagined and real experiences. This partially explains why our words can take our readers into worlds they might never otherwise enter. But the same can be true for us as writers. Our words are vehicles, carrying us inward, to worlds that are often composites of experiences from our past. They also can carry us outward to access the universal wisdom found in what Teilhard de Chardin called the "noosphere," or thinking layer of our planet.

Before the printing press, stories and information were exchanged through gestures, body language and the human voice. Maybe back then we better understood the power of language as a way of literally communing with others, for in our telling we were connected instantly with the excitement of our listeners. Our words were bridges between our consciousness. Their excitement excited us, inspiring us to probe even further into the unknown.

So maybe that's what it's all about-that whether we publish a book or simply write a short piece to share with friends, writing lets us impart our life experiences with others and to venture together beyond the known and familiar. While NASA's space ships probe the mysteries of outer space, our words probe inner space, revealing the mysteries of our humanness.

I keep wondering if there isn't a way to bring all this into workshops or community gatherings. There's a tendency today to view the power of language as something happening only on the printed page, in the way words are put together. But if we pay close attention we also may notice that they can carry us further, transporting us beyond the page into the mysterious. Albert Einstein once said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

Perhaps it is the mysterious that we seek in language, whether we are interested in publishing or in the most personal and private writing. I'd like to think so.

Copyright 2002 by Hal Zina Bennett. All rights reserved. Email the author at: halbooks@halzinabennett.com


Hal's latest book is First Light, Then Quiet, a collection of his poetry from the past seven years. It is published by Tenacity Press, sells for $10, and is available at your local bookstore, at Amazon.com or by emailing him directly. If you order directly and are a California resident, please add 7% for sales tax. Postage and handling are free.


All articles and images in this website are copyrighted by Hal Zina Bennett 2003-2014.  Written permission must be obtained before use of articles and images. Last modified: October 07, 2010