• April 25, 2019 |

    the pen is not a sword

    on the power of writing

    article by , illustrated by

    We often hear that the pen is mightier than the sword. 

    Throughout my years as a writer, I’ve proudly clung to this expression, simply believing that it promised me the possibility of transcending the bookworm archetype. Offered a weapon to wield, one even mightier than a sword, I became a warrior-leader-pathfinder—with an emphasis on “warrior,” of course. After all, that was the juicy stuff, the stuff of power. In a world that seemed to champion CS majors and pre-med kids, I could at least hang onto this one thing, this single thread of pride. It was my battle cry. 

    *** 

    One of my first adventures in Providence involved bookstore-hunting. I gallivanted down the streets with three new acquaintances (the hello-my-name-is- Kaitlan-and-I-plan-on-concentrating-in- English kind), and we eventually stumbled into a pretty little bookshop. Soft music emanated from a corner of the room. The cashier peered at us through his glasses. Books lined the walls: 1984 and Cloud Atlas, Great Expectations and Memoirs of a Geisha. My companions had read them all and wanted to know what I thought of them. But I couldn’t respond, because I hadn’t read any of them. So I concealed my lack of opinion with a wordless shake of my head. Though I tried to play it cool, self-doubt flurried in my mind. What was wrong with me, what was wrong with me—wasn’t I the aspiring English major? My companions, in the reading they’d done in their free time, outshone me in my area of “expertise.” I was invalidated. Inadequate. Ignorant. Anything but powerful. 

    As the semester progressed, I wrote and read and wrote some more and eventually began to realize that I wasn’t becoming a “warrior” at all. Response papers that asked me to answer questions such as “What is home?” forced me to acknowledge my horrifying feeling of displacement. Academic essays were subject to intense scrutiny, and for the first time, I worried that hours of drafting would not be enough to land me an A. Even my own journal entries were flooded with confusion about identity and self-worth. Time and time again, those bookstore insecurities reemerged. My pen wasn’t doing much blocking, parrying, or slicing at all. It was only forcing me to profess how weak I was. It seemed I was anything but powerful. 

    *** 

    As freshman year winds down, I continue to reflect on my struggle with security, confidence, and power as a writer. I now see that the kind of “power” I had previously sought is unattainable. I had misconstrued the pen as an evolved weapon, stronger than the sword in the same way a car differs from a horse. I thought that I could use it to make myself feel stronger, to forge success and make my voice heard. But the truth was that the pen could not transform me into a warrior— at least not one with gold-plated armor and a jewel-encrusted helmet. Because it wasn’t supposed to. It wasn’t a sword in the slightest. 

    But it did demand courage. The pen, I learned, blatantly exposes our great-est insecurities. 

    It’s true—I can express heartache through piano keys in ways that I cannot through journal scribbles. But when I write, there appears a kind of candor I cannot find while playing Chopin. Words unmask me, even when I don’t ask them to. They become blunt and scary because words are how we most directly communicate, and writing them is even scarier because it makes them inescapably permanent. There are no walls to hide behind, no distractions to blend into. I can only write with what I know—even my imagination is lined with personal beliefs and previous experiences. I can only write with who I am. 

    *** 

    Now, when I see a blank sheet of paper, not only am I filled with a nervous excitement (what kinds of stories will appear?) but also with a subtle anxiousness. With each word, I strip yet another layer of myself bare to the world. Am I ready to do this? Am I brave enough? 

    Sometimes, I find that I don’t have the answers to these questions. Nevertheless, I write. 

    It’s not a matter of how many books I’ve read or how perfectly my essays answer the prompt. It’s not about comparison or competition or covetousness. I’ve come to realize that my true power lies in that profession of vulnerability, in my perseverance despite my insecurities. 

    The pen is not a sword because when I pick up my pen, my sword inevitably clatters to the ground. The pen forces the shield out of my hand, lifts the helmet off my head, and strips me of my heavy armor. The pen is not a sword because it is mightier: It obligates me to reveal my scars to all who care to look. I hold my naked heart in my worn-out hands and let the world think what it will.