Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | September 29, 2015

Write What You Want to Say but Can’t

At some point in life, most of us run into a situation where we want to or ought to speak our thoughts or feelings but cannot do so. Perhaps another person or event intrudes and the moment passes. Perhaps our own self-consciousness or insecurity keeps us from saying something that ought to be said. Or maybe what we want to say so affects our emotions that we cannot find the words or simply cannot get the words out. Whatever the reason, we keep silent.

Silence is not always golden. Too many people later regret not speaking when the opportunity appeared. (There are times, of course, when we should keep silent rather than say hurtful or angry words that we might regret later. Angry or hurtful words spoken can be regretted as much as kind or loving words unspoken.)

You’d think that expressing feelings to spouses and family members would come naturally for people, yet countless times I’ve read of or heard people expressing regret at not having told a loved one how much they cared before the person’s sudden death. With that in mind, I started the tradition with my grown children of ending every phone conversation and personal visit with the words “I love you.” Although I believe my children know how I feel about them, it’s never a meaningless phrase but a sentiment that bears repeating — often — so I will never have to later feel sorry for not saying the words. (Neither will they, for they’ve all picked up the habit.)

Expressing our feelings to friends or acquaintances can be just as difficult. If you’re like me, you have times when you ponder the things you value about the people you know, times when you consider the help and support they give you and all the ways these people make your life more interesting, exciting, informed, loving, better or easier. While you know that these people would appreciate hearing your feelings, you don’t say a thing.

Not only can finding the right words to say be challenging, but so can finding an appropriate opportunity to express the sentiment. So what can we do to prevent subsequent regret when we cannot say what we feel? We can write. Writing thoughts and sentiments is not as hard as speaking them. Not only does writing allow you time to sort out your thoughts and revise your wording, but it’s so much less intimidating and freeing when you are not speaking to a person’s face. (I suspect that’s one reason love letters have always been — and continue to be — popular.)

You don’t have to be a writer to put your thoughts and feelings in writing. Anyone can do it. Even if the words you choose don’t perfectly express what you’d like to say, they’ll mean a lot to the recipient — perhaps more than you imagine.

This topic has been on my mind since the death last week of a woman I respected and valued. I met Carol when she began attending my church after she discovered that she had lung cancer nine years ago. Carol had been a professional chef and had not smoked or done any of those things that can cause lung cancer — except marry a chain-smoking man so that she lived in a house constantly hazed with cigarette smoke.

Despite her illness and the strain it caused her financially, Carol remained positive and upbeat. She was a beautiful woman, not in outward appearance, but inside, where it counts. Afflicted by a lifelong severe stutter, Carol had an appreciation for words and actions. She was a giving and caring person, who put her culinary skills to use for church dinners and the local homeless center. She was a person we all appreciated and miss.

During the past nine years Carol endured a series of chemotherapy sessions. Some of them seemed to work for a time, but then the cancer returned and the doctors tried new round with a different drug. Each time she suffered through the ill effects of chemotherapy, I sent her funny get well cards. I’m a firm believer in sending actual paper cards that people can hold in their hands or set on their table or hang on their wall to look at and remember that someone is thinking of them, and I like to include a personal message in each card.

Months ago, when I sent Carol a card as she underwent the last of the standard chemotherapy regimens for lung cancer, something spurred me to tell her how important she was to me and how glad I was that she had joined our church family. I’m not sure I said it as eloquently as I could have, but I said what I felt. The next time Carol saw me, she told me how much the card and the words meant to her.

I know should tell people my feelings more often, but I don’t. I did it this time — in writing — and I’m so glad I did.

Do you find it easier to express strong feelings in writing than in speech? Have you had the experience of not saying something and regretting that later? Do you write to let people know the things you want to say but can’t?

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And to our writer friends — don’t forget that your characters should find speaking their thoughts and feelings equally difficult, and maybe impossible. Think what problems that might cause for a character!

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