Sticks and Stones, or, Words Do Hurt

All my life, I have despised the common saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I have always revised the second clause to “but words may break my spirit.”  While I try not to let what people say hurt me, I am not always completely successful.  I often work my way through the hurt, but that is not the same.

Tia Bach wrote this thoughtful post about how people will say anything.  She mentioned several hurtful things said about her eldest daughter; it made me so angry to read her post.  I know how sensitive preteen girls can be. When I turned 13, I transformed from a skinny, petite little girl to a “plump” teenager.  Suddenly, I was no longer being called a cute little thing, but “large-boned,” which I am not, or just “large.” I did not deal well with these comments, tumbling into anorexia nervosa.  

Being painfully thin only changed the comments, so that now I was “gawky,” or”skeletal,” but not the hurt. I often joke now about being many pounds overweight, saying I recovered too well from anorexia, but in all honesty, I have not recovered.  I am still far too susceptible to what is said about me. 

Tia’s post finished with a question: should book reviews that attack the author, not the writing, be deleted?  My visceral reaction was yes, but then I remembered my aunt, a consummate Southern belle, who ignored hateful comments, saying it made the person saying the comments look bad, not her.

Writing proves the power of words. While one should not avoid telling the truth about a piece of work, shouldn’t one point out any deficiencies without loaded, invested words? In college, I received a critique while  standing on a stage in front of about 300 people.  I felt I was being beaten in public.  Although the person giving the critique did not attack me personally, neither did he offer any constructive criticism.  After some time talking about the brilliance of his own work, he told me that my poem was a classic example of haiku gone wrong; if the rest of my work was like that example, I should throw it all out and quit. 

That critique from twenty years ago made me far too sensitive; I have only come out of the closet within the last year to have my work critiqued. With the advantage of life lived between now and then, I know the critique said far more about him than it did me. I realize there was a lot wrong with my poem, but I needed guidance, not grandstanding about how his work was much better.

I choose my words more carefully since the experience of being called names and told to quit writing.  I know the weight and depth of words. To me, hurtful words are far worse than common profanity.  Although I wasn’t thrilled when my children said profane words, I came out full force against “stupid, idiot, fat,” and the like.  My standards were tested by my inventive children, but I held firm. I never taught them words could not hurt them, either. 


17 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones, or, Words Do Hurt”

  1. I always try to choose my words carefully because I don’t like to hurt people either. Comes from what my parents said to me when I was an overweight adolescent. It took me a long time to be happy with myself after that, and it is only now, in my forties, that I am happy with who I am and feel strong enough to accept the critiques that my writing has received.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Alisa. I am more comfortable in my skin now than I used to be; I don’t think I’ll ever see myself correctly in a mirror, but I only look to make sure my hair is combed and my lipstick straight!

      I’ve gotten several spot-on critiques that were hard to hear, in a sense, but yet rang true, and were said to make the work better. I’m getting much better at hearing those. I hope you have a lovely rest of the weekend.

  2. Words do hurt, especially if they come from people you love and trust because they have the power to wound.

    People being plain nasty whether in reviews or in life is a reflection upon them and not the person on the receiving end. We can’t take responsibility for another persons actions.

    However, constructive criticism said with a desire to help and improve a craft is a different thing altogether. It’s still hard to take on the chin without our bottom lip trembling, but it does make us better writers. Just make sure the person giving the critique knows what he/she is talking about.

    1. I agree completely, Christine. Did I really want to hear that I just hadn’t connected with my heroine enough to make her real to my readers? OF course not, but I knew when I heard it that the criticism was true.

      Your point about making sure people know what they are talking about is very important.Sometimes one has to leaven the advice with what one knows will make a work better.

      Thank you for coming by and commenting, Christine.

  3. Hi Elizabeth! Wow, words can be so powerful. While I grew up and cut my teeth on constructive criticism, hurtful words that cut to the core are an entire other matter. Those words come from self anger and jealousy. Sick, isn’t it?
    I enjoyed your post! 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Karen. Like CC says, it’s more a reflection on the person who is being nasty, but I was far too young and too nervous about my first competition to know that. While I regret that I hid for so long, I’m happier that I am out of the closet, so to speak, now.

      Thanks for coming by!

  4. I agree with you, even though my initial reaction was to get rid of reviews with personal attacks. I think most of us can weed through people with hateful agendas and meaningful reviews. It does make that person look bad.

    And I also agree… I’d rather my child say a bad word than a hurtful one.

    I appreciate your kind words about my post. It was one that had been simmering for awhile and it felt good to put it out there.

    1. Tia, I understand about needing to write that post. I can take a lot of guff myself, but any injury to my children or my family, and I am a tigress. It is a brave, honest post, and one that your daughters will be proud of.

      I had a lot of trouble with my sons when they first went to school; they came home with words that were “acceptable” there and utterly unacceptable here: “idiot,” “fat,” “ugly.” It was hard to explain why those words were okay at school–I still don’t understand that!

      As for the reviews, Jennette has a good point about the review not helping readers decide about a book, but I think I would still err on the side of inclusion. It’s a very personal choice, and I might feel differently once I have something in print that trashes me.

  5. Wow, Elizabeth, what a story (rather, two). Thanks for sharing! I have to agree, the attacking reviews and name-calling are more a reflection on the reviewer/speaker than the target, but it still hurts. I would say if a review is nothing more than a personal attack, it should be deleted, because the whole point of a review is to help other readers decide if a book is for them, and these nasty reviews don’t do that. A negative, but thoughtful review that focuses on the book is a different thing altogether, and will hopefully steer away readers who don’t enjoy the kind of books we write.

    1. Jennette, you have an excellent point that the personal attack adds nothing to help a reader decide to read a book or not. Although I have been critically flayed in public, I might feel differently about a personal attack in print, but I’m not at that point yet.

      I agree about a thoughtful negative review. It stings, but if it is given while the work is in progress, it helps make it better. If it is after the work is published, it does what you say, steers the readers to a work they may enjoy better.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  6. Especially in a critique, I try to balance the positive and the negative. They always say writers should develop a thick skin, but who knows better than us how much words can hurt?

    1. Excellent point, Deniz. I think that constructive criticism can be put in ways that, well, may disappoint or sting, to be honest, but that do not hurt. I taught undergraduates for a while; I tried to point out what could be improved, not what was bad. Some people don’t seem to know the difference!

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