We writers have an advantage we take for granted. When people want to deal with us, they're forced to play to our strength - they have to meet us in the world of words.
If a back-hoe operator gets upset at my column and wants to have it out with me, we don't schedule a bout of dueling back-hoes. We use words. And for writers, that's a home-court advantage.When a painter wants to have a heart-to-heart about art, he doesn't paint me a picture. He tells me in a thousand words.
Years ago I dated a ballet dancer. She was the most articulate, precise dancer I've ever seen, but words failed her. When we'd have a lively debate, I could bob and weave and counter-punch with words until she either grew weary or gave up in frustration. If the world had allowed her the chance to dance her feelings instead of forcing her to speak them, however, I'd have been in big trouble.
When I think of those little bouts with the ballerina, I always flash on a scene from a Kurt Vonnegut novel. This guy comes to earth from another planet. In his world, people communicate by tap-dancing and exhibiting disgusting bodily functions. He lands in the Midwest, sees a house on fire and runs for help. He finds a group of men working on a road crew. He begins tap-dancing, etc., for all he's worth.
The men watch him for a minute, then they walk over and beat the daylights out of him.
On the other hand, I do know that people often do communicate without resorting to language. Sometimes the communication is even deeper and more meaningful than words. I know the story about Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton - two great rock musicians - spending a whole afternoon talking back and forth by playing their guitars. And many of my friends seem to communicate by "meaningful gesture."
Not to harp on my love life here, but I once dated a small-town girl who always let me know how she felt without speaking a word. When she was happy, she'd make me a banana cream pie. When she was upset, I'd get the silent treatment.
About a year into the relationship I decided I should start dating other women. She never said a word, but the next time I dropped by to take her out, she was wearing a T-shirt that read "Alabama Concert Tour, 1984."
I knew she never bought such things for herself, so she'd obviously gone to the concert with another guy and he'd bought her a shirt. Wearing it with me was her way of saying "If you're going to date, I'm going to date."
Once, I remember, she got a dozen roses while I was there. There wasn't a card.
"Do you know who they're from?" I asked.
"Steve," she said.
"He must like you."
"No," she said. "This is just his way of apologizing. The other night we were on a date and he got a little out of hand, and he wants me to know he's sorry and it'll never happen again."
I mean there wasn't even a card!
In the end, as a confirmed "word person," I must say I envy that ability to communicate beyond language. No matter what writers may tell you, actions do speak louder than words. "Don't talk of love lasting through time," runs a line in "My Fair Lady," "If you're on fire, show me!"
And writers often beat subjects to death with language.
More than once I've spent an afternoon in a soul-searching discussion, twisting, turning, philosophizing, speculating. When it was over, much had been said, nothing had been done.
At such times, I find myself wishing for a good old-fashioned bouquet of roses.
Or maybe even a homemade banana cream pie.