When words fail us

This post was originally written for The Creative Cafe.


I spend the majority of my waking hours engaged with words.

When I’m not writing, reading, and researching for work, I’m writing, reading and researching for my own projects. If you made a time lapse of my average day, there’d be no discernable line between work and not-work. It all blurs together. It’s all about words — their structure, rhythm, emotions, meaning.

Yet, in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, I so often find myself perplexed by words.

My ineptitude at speaking is perhaps a large reason why I wanted to get good at writing in the first place. In speech, I’m clumsy and inarticulate. I stutter and stammer at the slightest hint of stress, a quirk inherited from my grandfather. I swallow syllables, mumble, get cotton mouth, overuse certain words.

In the face of overwhelming anxiety (which is most social situations), I easily clam up. When I feel intimidated, my voice drops to a barely audible whisper.People usually respond by repeatedly telling me to be louder, which exacerbates the issue. To speak clearly without anxiety muffling my voice, I need to be constantly vigilant, always making a conscious effort to slow down and speak up.

Word don’t always work. Sometimes they’re not enough.


Maybe you know the feeling.

The moment when you look at someone and want to tell them something so utterly defined, something you can feel like a splinter beneath your skin. But the words are lacking. You can’t find them and you know they don’t exist. You know that no noise that could come out of your mouth could ever truly convey your meaning to them. Clumsily, you find vague proxies, approximations of the true sentiment, useless stand-in words shoved together like jumbled jigsaw pieces with gaps in between.

So you spit them out. The other person smiles, nods, says thank you, gets angry, cries, whatever. But you know they don’t understand what you really meant.

It’s like sending a message in a bottle across a heartbreaking ocean and watching the other person trying to decipher the water stained paper, the leaking ink.

It’s like yelling to someone across the cramped living room at a house party, where the air vibrates with music that sounds the way a seizure feels (maybe that’s the intention), where countless elbows crush your ribs and watching them guess at the contours of your syllables.

Do those metaphors work? Probably not.


Words fail us at the times when it seems we need them the most.

There is no right vocabulary for conveying the depths of human experience to other people. You can leaf through a thesaurus and find words that are close to what you want, yet they remain a simulacrum of the truth.

A representation of reality, in the same way strawberry flavouring in a McDonald’s milkshake represents the taste of a fresh, seed-studded strawberry just picked off a dewy bush. In the same way gaudy postcards studded with baguettes and berets and neon Eiffel Towers represent Paris. In the same way a meticulously edited Instagram picture represents the person in it.


I’m a writer. It is the core of my identity.

But I don’t have words for the extremes. I don’t have words that could truly make me feel I’ve conveyed the depths of my own experiences.

I don’t have the words to explain the moment I first held my cat, a mass of tangled fur and bones and fleas, her yellow eyes impossibly wide and her tiny mouth open in a screech of anguish. Or the moment I lay on the floor of a bathroom in Berlin after my relationship ended and grandfather died two days apart and cried until the blood vessels in my eyes burst and the salt water left flaking patches of skin on my face. Or how it felt to walk out into the winter sunlight after signing myself out of university, feeling the leaves beneath my feet and the elated fear that accompanies finally taking control of your life.

I don’t have words for the feeling when one of my friends actually texts me first with no agenda, something which is rare enough to make my day. There’s no metaphor adequate for standing at the edge of the ocean after being awake for 48 hours, or the taste of hospital emergency room tea. Or the way the dog looks back at me and grins in an all-too-human way when we go for walks, or the smell of my mother’s kitchen.


Babies don’t have words.

So they cry and channel everything they feel into their tears. We do the same as adults, albeit in more creative ways. When words fail, we channel our experience in other ways.

We cry, yes, but we also drink, touch, run, scream, set fire, paint, travel, laugh, spend, cook, grab, hurt, heal, photograph. We try to fill in the gaps.

I can’t use words to make you understand how any of the experiences in my life felt, for me, at that moment. Neither can you. We can come close, and it’s still as futile as a racoon washing cotton candy.

So we throw words across the chasm in the knowledge that the recipient(s) will distort them to make sense in light of their own experience and maybe that’s okay.