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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sticks And Stones? They Hurt. Words? They Can Kill Me

by James L. Rubart

Remember being told to memorize this classic line when you were a kid? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

What a crock. 

Anyone who’s been alive for more than three years know that bruises and breaks to our bodies can heal much faster than the ones to our hearts and minds. In truth, countless word attacks are still not close to being healed; at least that’s the case with me. You too?

Two Quick Stories

Back in the late 90s, when I was still extremely nervous about my writing, I took a chance and asked an acquaintance (who shot TV commercials for my ad agency) to read a short story I’d written. At that point, I’d never shown any of my fiction to anyone but my wife so it wasn’t easy for me to take the risk. 

But since my  acquaintance was a director, I had this ill informed and ignorant idea that if he liked it, he could get it into the hands of people who knew about a thing or two about publishing. He didn’t read it, but  did give it to his camera man who my acquaintance said knew what made up a good story.   

His camera man read it. Said he didn’t get it, that it didn’t make sense. Disjointed. I took that to heart. The words went deep. Killed me. I shut down and buried my writing dream and didn’t risk again till years later. When I finally did, I showed the short story to four friends who all said it was one of the more powerful stories they’d ever read.

Story Number Two

In the summer of ’12 I taught a class on fiction at the Oregon Christian Writers Conference. During the class I asked the students to give me their pitch. I gave a quick response to each. A year later, one of the students came up to me and said, “You told me my idea wouldn’t work. You were flippant. You didn’t give me any reasons why it wouldn’t succeed and it really, really hurt.”

I was stunned. I didn’t remember saying that, and it's not my nature to react that way. But it doesn’t matter. That’s what she heard. (Are you impressed that she had the guts to confront me about it? I was. Highly. We talked it out and are now good friends--and she is a talented writer.)

The Moral of the Story(s)

Be careful. Of who you listen to. Of what you allow inside. Some people (like my director/camera man acquaintances) don’t know what they’re talking about. Talk to people who do know. Guard our hearts above all else, yes?

And realize that you might be saying things to writers a few paces behind you on the publishing path that will have a significant impact. For good. Or for pain. 
I don’t think we realize what an impact our words can make. Actually yeah, I guess I do. 

I remember vividly when I first jumped into the publishing world in ’06 and the offhand encouragement I received from a number of people I admired. They probably wouldn’t recall saying anything to me, but I remember. Their words gave me hope. Helped me persevere. Kept me on the path. I bet someone has done the same for you.

Yes, the words we write are powerful. We craft them to be that way. Just don’t forget how powerful the ones we speak can be and how we need to craft them with just as much wisdom.

James L. Rubart is 28 years old, but lives trapped inside an older man's body. He thinks he's still young enough to water ski like a madman, and dirt bike with his two grown sons, and loves to send readers on journeys they'll remember months after they finish one of his stories. He's the best-selling, Christy award winning author of seven novels as well as a professional speaker. During the day he runs his marketing company which helps businesses, authors, and publishers make more coin of the realm. He lives with his amazing wife on a small lake in eastern Washington. More at


  1. I once had the opportunity to be one of those first readers. The author knew nothing of how to write, and I do mean nothing. Mention any guideline to good writing and she didn't have it. But oh! Was she a storyteller! The end came out of nowhere and surprised me so much, I immediately emailed her. I told her what happened, then I told her she had a lot of work to do to get her writing publishable, but never stop because she was a natural born storyteller.

    At the conference (it was a paid critique) I learned that I was the first person to ever read her work. She was thrilled and ready to dive into learning. I thank God I was able to be her first reader. I'll never forget that.

  2. I hired an editor to read my second manuscript. She'd done a helpful edit of my first manuscript, but absolutely shredded my second. I was stunned by the onslaught. One point that really stuck with me: a character was shallow and selfish for a humorous thought during wartime. What?? She didn't think people laughed during WWII? Ironically, I'd already been notified this story was a Genesis finalist that year. I took the first chapter to conference and shared it during a mentor appointment. She didn't agree with all the criticism. Yes, the story still needed work, but it wasn't as bad as the editor made it sound. And it's going to be published next spring. It's always a good idea to get another opinion.

  3. Very true. And because writing is so sensitive and personal, even the most offhand comment can come across as cutting. But the praise can make you soar!

  4. Love that, Ane! What a honor to be her first encourager. Just think if you hadn't sen the diamond in the rough.

    So good, Terri. Way to press on.

    Exactly, SOE!

  5. Exactly! Thanks, Jim. Good advice.

  6. James thank you for your advice and caution. I have to say that words from the past have kept me from so much. Not cool. Thanks for the advice. I


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