The words that shaped us

(Image - Patti Smith)

An old adage tell us that we are what we eat.

Nutrition of the body & of the mind. Our daily meals exist also in the articles, the pages, the quotes we've underlined in our beloved books.

The words we speak, read, write & repeat are a product of the pools of thought that swim & swirl in our heads, but from where?

Our upbringing, in part, of course. Our personal ideologies. An amalgam of that which we've been taught and the wisdom we've self-sought.

The words we speak, read, write & repeat shape us. We are a physical embodiment of them & they manifest in our actions & interactions.

So let us treat them as what they are; nutrition.

These are (some of) the words that shaped us.






‘I recall an August afternoon in Chicago in 1973 when I took my daughter, then seven, to see what Georgia O’Keefe had done with where she had been. One of the vast O’Keefe “Sky Above Clouds” canvases floated over the back stairs in the Chicago Art Institute that day, dominating what seemed to be several stories of empty light, and my daughter looked at it once, ran to the landing, and kept on looking. “Who drew it,” she whispered after a while. I told her. “I need to talk to her,” she said finally. 

My daughter was making, that day in Chicago, an entirely unconscious but quite basic assumption about people and the work they do. She was assuming that the glory she saw in the work reflected a glory in its maker, that the painting was the painter as the poem is the poet, that every choice one made alone—every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid or not laid down—betrayed one’s character. Style is character. It seemed to me that afternoon that I had rarely seen so instinctive an application of this familiar principle, and I recall being pleased not only that my daughter responded to style as character but that it was Georgia O’Keefe’s particular style to which she responded: this was a hard woman who had imposed her 192 square feet of clouds on Chicago.’

— Joan Didion, The White Album


Joan Didion taught me about the poetry of the every day. It was in discovering her iconic books like The White Album that I discovered myself as a writer. From early childhood I have always written and been enamoured by works of fiction. But Joan’s essays showed me that works of non-fiction could be just as richly rendered and equally as evocative as fiction. Her writing has helped me to experiment with medium and form in my own words. And gave me the courage to recently release a collection of my own poetry, prose, and personal essays — Dossier. Which makes this a particularly potent moment for me to look back on the words that shaped me. And the other wordsmiths who have given me the courage to find my own voice.

As we approach the first anniversary of Joan Didion’s passing, I am reminded now of just how vital her work has been for me. A particular favourite piece of mine, and one that I return to often, is her ‘Georgia O’Keefe’ essay in The White Album — not only for the insight that it offers into the world of this enigmatic artist, but also for the themes it explores about how the painting is the painter as the poem is the poet. Style is, after all, character.



My piece of text is from Sheila Heti, from her book Motherhood, which is not about being a mother, but more about choice-making, the tension of options, or the way in which we reason with one's own self. This snippet stood out for me. I usually underline sentences in pencil that I want to re-read, or re-consider, at a later time. This was one of those. I re-read these words as often as I can, as a reminder that the world is not what is, but rather, what I am, and what I feel is. I love the way it puts value in repetition, something that we as a culture have become so scared of: to be seen as stagnant, unmotivated. But often, there can be value in a further investigation, a refinement of an idea, or a commitment to what we choose to stand for. 


"The other night I had a dream which said it was good to keep walking down the very same streets; that the longer I walked down them, the more I would find. Slowing down is important, said the dream. Repetition is important. Be in the same place, differently. Change the self, not the place."




Vonnegut wrote this letter to a class of school children but these are words that traverse age & have helped me maintain an entirely vital sense of self-curiosity. I'm prone to perfectionism and can be married to outcomes and predeterminations, which can stop me from journeying. The letter's sentiment re-engages me with an inner child, a sense of levity & ultimately acts as a reminder that life is & can be a daily act of conjuring the muse.

I don't mean for that to sound lofty, but just as necessary as any form of physical exercise. 

I recently took up photography and felt a creeping sense of self consciousness as I pursued a new medium of expression I didn't entirely understand. Therein lies the good stuff is what I always come back to realise. The potency of the life force that is exploration.  

This piece of writing will always be soul food to me. (Read it below)



Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

I found a copy of Letters to a Young Poet on a friend’s bookshelf when I was living in Los Angeles in my late twenties. My eyes landed on it as they casually glided across a stack of books, followed by a firm internal nod to read it. I hadn’t heard of the book and have since come to know that it is a staple source of elevation for writers, poets, artists of any kind, or anyone who feels estranged from a felt and spiritual life, the roots from which we express ourselves. 

The words of Rainer Maria Rilke offered me refuge and strength, addressing the dissonance I often feel with the world around me, particularly the speed at which ordinary life seems to spin. I am someone who stands in the observation lane, I take time to process and to report back in the form of artistic work. In response I have heard the world telling me I am simply “too slow and too sensitive”. 

Letters to a Young Poet renewed a lost faith in me to find home within my yearnings and disenchantments, and to work at a pace that is in connection with what is felt. Rather than “go full speed ahead” or “rise above”, in very tender words there is a bold message to abandon all societal terms and conditions that diminish the artist’s essential voyage and to sink within what is both painful and beautiful, this is artistic nourishment. From this richness of enquiry, Rilke says “your solitude will be a support and a home, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, you will find all paths”.




The Creative Process by James Baldwin

This is not, as the title might suggest, a guide on how to write, paint or even draw. This is a reflection on the role of the creative in society: to pave the way for change.

"The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being."




'What I Loved’, Siri Hustvedt

This is a fiction novel and I have chosen to quote below a few resonant passages below that give an essence of Siri’s work (although I could quote the entire novel):

“The man was heavy with life. So often it’s lightness that we admire. Those people who appear weightless and unburdened, who hover instead of walk, attract us with their defiance of ordinary gravity. Their carelessness mimics happiness, but Bill had none of that.”

“Do you remember when you told me I had beautiful knees? I never like my knees. In fact, I thought they were ugly. But your eyes have rehabilitated them. Whether I see you again or not, I'm going to live out my life with these two beautiful knees.”

Siri’s writing shows me that a story is told in slow advances. Imagination can linger in seemingly small things. Her writing is sumptuous like cake; it is the kind of writing where I stop after a sentence and read it again and my eyes widen with silent applause. Her leisurely pace of words craft a small story within the story - this is the kind of writing I live for.

This story is about love and grief and what makes it unbearable, how life after marriage is sometimes longer than the one before marriage; and how children can turn into something you were sure you didn’t create. It shows me that solitude can be wide enough for two people to walk side by side. That men seek fairytales as well as find caution in them. That some men can sense this mythology playing alongside real life as clearly as I can, and that is the kind of man I find interesting. In this book art isn’t just paintings with the voice of a strong opinion. It is tiny little houses and wolves and proof that storytelling can come from the wise in anyone.

I think it changed what I find most intriguing about women. The ease in which one thinks about darker things and with unhurried tenderness about the women before her. Women in hospitals, women who don’t eat, women that ran from husbands and fathers. There is poetry in the crazy. I realise that being sensual means being interested in knowledge and that knowledge includes the ugly. This comfort with ugliness is what makes being sensual something to behold and something to be afraid of. The beautiful woman in this book is round and mischievous and all knowing; this made me see beauty as something densely textured.

It made me see that writing can be told over several lifetimes and that those lifetimes can intersect one another the way a maze does. That memories and experience leave the indelible print the way you fold a book page at its corner. I understand life to be a little bit fiction and a little bit fact. That these things inform
one another and that we can make up most of it. If we can write about it in a way that is tinged with purple and gold then we do it justice. Siri’s novel made me see violence in small actions and how one person can smell like two people combined. I quote, ‘Proximity and belief are closely connected’.

When a book makes you see the life around you as a stage, set up with curiosities - this is a good book.