The Last Word

Writers can develop proprietary feelings around words, up to and including wanting the last one. No one wants to be the bore at the party, hogging the airwaves until the room is pummeled into exhaustion because we just have one . . . more . . . thing . . . to say—but this is merely an example of the best intentions leading to the worst results. The “best intentions” in this case being to leave your audience better than where you found them. That’s our job as writers, after all: To take readers on a journey, however small, that leads them someplace better.

As I wrote in an earlier column, we are, however, necessarily powerless in determining where exactly it is our readers decide to travel through our work—but this all to the good. Actually, not only is it good, it’s the best arrangement possible. Why? Because it’s proof that—in all that really matters in the world to you—you will always, always, always have the last word.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I am coming to the end of a book. I love writing books, but I don’t always love finishing them. Finishing a book means other people reading it, which inevitably means other people telling me what they think of it. It’s not that I don’t want to know what people think about my stuff, it’s just that I can get so confused over it. The book is slow, the book is fast, the book is funny, the book is dull…if I go to the wrong place I can end up suffering from a kind of egoic whiplash, congratulating myself one minute and berating myself the next, and all because of some harmless, usually off-hand remark.

And how do I get to this wrong place? By forgetting that I have the last word. And I don’t just mean about my work, though, yes, of course, you always cast the deciding vote on whether this goes or that stays. No, I mean on everything. I have the last word on everything. Nothing that anyone says to me ever has any effect until I say it does. If someone says I am handsome, and I think, “She is right. I am handsome,” then I am handsome. But if I think, “What does she mean? What about the bald spot? What about the crooked nose?”, then I am not handsome.

It is absolutely as simple as that. You are the last word on every single thing that has ever been or ever will be said to you. Nothing can reach you until it has passed through this filter. Every word is like a gift that you can choose to receive or return. My goal in writing is to offer the most inviting gift possible. But I know it will not and cannot be received by all. And as well it shouldn’t be. I reserve the right to decline someone else’s gift, and if that right is mine, then that right is everyone’s.

This sovereignty, however, is most useful when practiced consciously. Left to the unconscious we can accept a lot of lousy gifts and turn away just as many lovely ones. What do you want to feel? And what is your life, every single moment, but what you are feeling? The only one who can make you feel anything is you. Not the President, not your husband or wife, not your mother or father—no one but no one can make you feel anything. Isn’t that wonderful news? Feel what you want and only what you want. You owe nothing to anyone but that—your own well-being.

And that, my friends, is my last word.

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