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What are the most powerful words ever written?

by Angela Roe


Ask a writer to tell a story, and they won’t shut up. Ask a writer to identify the most powerful words ever written, and you get crickets. “You want me to do what?” was the general sentiment received when I innocently posed the question to some of the nation’s most prolific literary professionals — all Mayborn conference alumni — it should be noted. Or, like one writer I asked showed me, you get rebuked and labeled small-minded forever proposing such an ill-conceived query. “I don’t write for free,” the unnamed author told me. Understood, sir.

 

But I persisted in asking my question, bending and reconstructing to appease and ease the consciences of those in our tribe who simply couldn’t bring themselves to choose the most powerful, or “best” words. To a mere few, the prompt became: “what words resonate with you on a primal level?” and for whatever reason, the question’s re-phrasing brought about comfort, and the courage to respond.

 

To each of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference speakers, past and present, who mused on my possibly naive but wholly earnest inquiry, I extend my deepest gratitude. Because to enter into this conversation takes courage. It’s not for us readers to assume that any writer here is dubbing his or her entry as king, but to embrace their selections as a glimpse into their most inward beings, at words that have pierced them so that they never forget. May we also never forget the powerful prose on these pages, and be grateful for the ways that words change us.

 

Light thy fire.

 

Joan of Arc was tied to the stake, and the fire was prepared at her feet, and she was given one last chance to recant and to confess, to save her own life. That’s pretty much it for me … just that kind of adherence to principle and heroism and rejection of the authoritarian state is just a complete and adamant “F--- you” to the imposition of the arbitrary authority of people who are way too powerful and stripped of human kindness. That kind of statement has saved humanity over and over again. Very few people are willing to do that.

 

Sebastian Junger, New York Times bestselling author, speaker, documentary filmmaker

 

Tell me a story.

 

The four-word command certainly ranks among the most powerful words in any language. Long before Herodotus, even before the first written word, humans have found deep meaning in storytelling. Stories explain the past and provide meaning by placing us into a larger tale. We see our lives in the form of a story. From answering our partner’s question “how was your day?” to dreaming of our future, our structure is storytelling.

 

For that reason, narrative non-fiction thrives. A mere recitation of facts is an encyclopedia. A story is an engaging piece of art to which readers are invariably drawn. When readers pick up a article or book by a member of the Mayborn Tribe, it’s because it answers the call, “Tell me a story.”

 

James McGrath Morris, journalist and biographer

 

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.

 

When American politicians are asked to name a book or a piece of writing that has most influenced them, they typically use the question as an opportunity to demonstrate that they are conversant in the language of faith rather than the language of literature. They name the Bible as their favorite book, and passages from scripture as their favorite text, and because they have nothing to say they often leave the impression that they’ve said nothing. So let me apologize in advance for resorting to the habits of political discourse in order to name the most powerful words ever spoken, because although they come from the New Testament, they are anything but political. Indeed, they amount to a confession of sorts — a confession by one man that other men thought to write down — and so the source of their power is not simply philosophical or theological; it’s journalistic.

 

The words are “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” and they were spoken by Jesus of Nazareth as he died in on the cross in Golgotha, two millennia ago. They appear in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, who then helpfully translate them as “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But it is not the translation that rings through the ages; it’s the original Aramaic — the fact that the evangelists chose to leave Jesus’s wail of despair and abandonment in the language of rural Jewish peasantry. As a result, it is a wail, naked and undefended, and we can still hear it, all these years later. We might not at all agree that he is a god, or God Himself; but there is no doubting that he was a man who lived and suffered; nor is there any doubting that—whatever you believe about his divinity — he died believing himself as powerless and utterly broken as any mere mortal … as any one of us.

 

It is the only time we hear Jesus speak as he actually spoke, in his native tongue, and to understand the power of those words, we need only compare what Luke offered in their place: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Next to the brutality of the original, it seems obviously inauthentic and contrived. Any competent screenwriter could have come up with “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” but only Jesus could have uttered “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” — which is why those words have given me a chill from the first moment I heard them as a little boy, and why they perhaps set me on my course as a reporter. You see, the Aramaic sentence that Jesus spoke in his darkest hour is not only an echo of one of the Psalms, and not only a challenge to both God and man.

 

It is history’s killer quote.

 

Tom Junod, senior writer, ESPN

 

I love you.

 

I love the end of Great Gatsby. And I love Poe, and the words of Jefferson and Lincoln. And just about anything from Cormac McCarthy or Norman Mailer has the power to stir you. But I think the most powerful words ever written or spoken are still: “I love you.” Those three words — and various iterations of the sentiment around the world — have more power than all the artillery on the planet. It’s so universal that the idea is tossed around frivolously, but when someone expresses it earnestly and genuinely, either in writing or in speech, it has the power to start wars, to build empires, and to change not only the person hearing it but the people saying it, too.

 

Mike Mooney, New York Times bestseller author, writer for Rolling Stone, GQ, and others, co-director, Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference

 

Let there be light.

 

In any reflection on the power of words, it seems only polite to give God the first word, and credit for the head-scratching assertion that in the beginning was the word – ideas outside of time – and then, somehow, the word was made flesh, and we were off and rolling down through the years. Flesh could not contain creation’s original state of timelessness, but our words could, and have, and therein lies much of their power, because without the endurance of words, there is no story to tell of humanity’s journey out of darkness.

 

The greatness of words has no season, although we can trace the chronology of their expression. From the ancient prophets  – “Do unto others”  – and the founding fathers – “All men are created equal” – and the extraordinary leaders in my own lifetime – “I have a dream” … “Ask not what your country can do for you” – wise words of inspiration and resolve have guided our civilization, just as they have channeled our individual paths.

 

And yet at this silvery stage in my life, perhaps as an antidote to the cynicism that seems to tempt our nation daily, I find myself most moved by the gentle lexicon of grace, the vocabulary of blessings, mindful of the power of remembrance that inhabits our language. And so I think of the words of Stanley Kunitz, that a writer’s work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.

 

The synonym for words is life.

 

Bob Shacochis, National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist

 

Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

 

These succinct words from the First Amendment have never seemed more necessary to our lives, both public and private. Nor have they ever seemed to be more directly threatened or disdained by certain elements of our society — including, it seems, the highest office in our land. They’re the most powerful words ever written because they ensure that all other words can be written. Let us continually remind ourselves of their bedrock importance — there’s a reason freedom of speech is the first amendment — and defend them with all the vicious vigilance of a mother wolf guarding her den.

 

Hampton Sides, editor-at-large, Outside Magazine, best-selling author

 

I’m an artist and artists don’t retire. I’m exactly where I should be - doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

 

Since I’m officially retired from UNT, I feel I have an obligation to speak directly and unequivocally to an important matter that illuminated how I feel about retirement. Do artists really retire? Singer/songwriter Judy Collins recently addressed the question in a way that I hope will inspire all aging artists like me. Collins, 78, is about to embark on a whirlwind tour with her old boyfriend, Stephen Stills.

 

George Getschow, Pulitzer Prize finalist, founder, Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference

 

The Negro’s identification with the life of the Delta is fundamental and complete. 

 

He came here as a slave with the earliest settlers. He has remained to live and multiply as a freedman. This land is first and last his handiwork. It was he who brought order out of a primeval wilderness, felling the trees, digging the ditches, and draining the swamps. He erected the homes which shelter him and the white man. He built the schools, the courts, the jails, the factories and warehouses. He was a roustabout on the river boats which connected the Delta with the outside world, and toiled up the steep banks of the landings bearing incredible loads on shining black shoulders ... The Negro was builder, too, of the railroads which were forever to extinguish the glory of steamboating on the Mississippi and the gorgeous dynasty of the river captains. Later he built the concrete roads which in turn were to cripple the railroads. The vast ramparts of the levees upon whose existence the life of the Delta depends sprang from the sweat and brawn of the Negro. Wherever one looks in this land, whatever one sees that is the work of man, was erected by the toiling, straining bodies of blacks."

 

I’m originally from Mississippi, and in the early 1980s, while doing some reporting down there, I came across a book called “Where I Was Born and Raised,” by a native Mississippian named David Cohn who was from the Delta region and wrote about it for The Atlantic. There’s this passage in the opening essay, “The Delta Land.” Cohn is describing the region as it was in the 1930s — a vanished world, really — but some observations by him are basically timeless. This is powerful to me, in part, because it’s an eloquent reminder of “what is owed.”

 

Alex Heard, editorial director, Outside Magazine, author

 

Letters form words and words form sentences; and the sentences written upon talismans are nothing but a collection of spirits which, though they may astonish the ordinary man, do not trouble the wise; for the wise know the power of words and are aware that words govern the whole world. Whether they are written or spoken, words can destroy kings and ruin empires.

 

I came upon this quote years ago reading The Book of the Thousand Nights and the One Night (three volume translation by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons) and jotted it down in my notebook. The Arabian Nights, as it’s sometimes called, is a collection of folktales in Persian, Arabic and other languages collected many centuries ago and first translated into English in 1706. Nobody knows who created these tales, some of them deeply philosophical, others little more than elaborate jokes. But they’re arranged in a framing narrative about a beautiful young woman, Scheherazade, who tells them one a night to a Sultan who plans to kill her. Each night she leaves her tale unfinished until the next night, and thus she survives to finish her tale and begin yet another. A fine example of the life-and-death power of words, which not only can topple a throne or a presidential candidate, but can save the teller’s life. As a writer, I find that a useful reminder.

 

Bill Marvel, former Dallas Morning News senior staff writer, author

 

You see, we may encounter any defeats, but we must not be defeated.

 

It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away - I rose right where I’d been knocked down. And then that’s how you get to know yourself. You say, hmm, I can get up! I have enough of life in me to make somebody jealous enough to want to knock me down. I have so much courage in me that I have the effrontery, the incredible gall to stand up. That’s it. That’s how you get to know who you are."

 

The following inspiring passage is from the late Maya Angelou, who said similar words to different people at different times. This version comes from an interview with Psychology Today, published in 2009. This quotation is especially inspiring to those of us who work for The Undefeated, as the words provide the foundation for what we try to stand for and accomplish at The Undefeated. You could say that Maya Angelou is the spiritual godmother of our platform. Being Undefeated is the story of African Americans in this country, overcoming obstacles, producing success out of heartbreak. It is also the story of sports anywhere at any level, the agony of defeat and the ability to rise from it and be better because of it.

 

Kevin Merida, senior vice president, ESPN; editor-in-chief, The Undefeated blog

 

Will you marry me?

 

Sure, great generals and statesmen had delivered stirring words and wise authors through the years have given us beautiful passages, but it is love that makes the world go round, and daring to share a marriage is at the heart of our world.

 

Frank Deford - NPR’s Morning Edition, novelist, acclaimed sportswriter, who sadly passed away May 28, 2017

 

 

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by Angela Roe
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