The Life-Saving Magic of Finding the Right Words
A Well-Written Letter Can Change Everything
Not all writing is equal. The operator’s manual to your vehicle is not the same as the ending to The Great Gatsby or the first few verses of Genesis. What we say matters, and it is not enough to do it almost right. As Mark Twain once remarked, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Choosing the right words can literally be the difference between life and death.
No one knows this better than my good friend Ray Edwards, whose latest book comes out this week. Read This Or Die: Persuading Yourself to a Better Life was a writing collaboration between the two of us in which we partnered to share his story of being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and how it ultimately made his life better.
After exhausting himself through various positive thinking strategies and faith healing techniques, Ray came to the point of near-suicide and was forced to call upon an old ally in the fight for his life. As a seasoned copywriter with nowhere to turn, he wrote himself a sales letter.
Instead of persuading his audience to buy another product, though, this time he endeavored to sell himself on the idea that a terminal diagnosis could be the best thing to ever happen to him. It took some convincing, but Ray succeeded in his mission; and the result was a better, richer experience of life. The book is his intimate and inspiring account of pulling off that job, and what it means for the rest of us.
Write This Or Die Full of Regret
While collaborating on this book, I found myself more than once feeling emotional about the story itself as well as the power of a person’s words to change their own reality. In the book, Ray includes his letter, walking the reader through the practical steps it takes to write your own. This exercise, I’ve learned, is something akin to what soldiers do before heading off to war, leaving “death letters” in their lockers. If they die in battle, the Army sends the letter back home to their loved ones so that nothing is left unsaid. A Ranger once told me that nothing makes a soldier appreciate life more than facing his own death—saying goodbye to your loved ones before you pass is one way to gain such sobriety.
Ray’s letter is something like a death letter but more like a eulogy to himself, intended to serve as a personal wake-up call. Literally titled “Read This Or Die,” Ray called himself to account for the state of his life and what needed to change. Instead of making a list of goals or constructing a complicated life plan, he called “BS” on all the ways in which he was not reaching his potential. The letter includes specific steps on what he can do to improve his situation, even if circumstances don’t change. And he encourages us to do the same.
What’s so fascinating and challenging about this exercise is that you can dodge a lot of responsibility when it’s being thrust upon you. You can pass the buck and shift the blame when someone else is accusing you of not doing more; but when you are the one acting as both judge and defendant, it’s much harder to talk yourself out of what you know you should be doing. The word we use for this kind of self-accountability is integrity, an oft-misunderstood concept that in its simplest sense means “wholeness.”
In a great book on the subject, Parker Palmer writes that “it is better to be whole than it is to be good.” We humans may disagree on our varying definitions of goodness, but we cannot so easily explain away our sense of being “dis-integrated.” That is, when our lives are falling apart, we know it. Any attempt to be “good” can ultimately devolve into self-righteous moralism, but striving to be whole is a different kind of pursuit, one in which you are constantly aiming to be more aligned with your deepest truth.
Integrity Is an Inside Job
It is a painful realization to not be living up to one’s potential, and I know it well. Since publishing Real Artists Don’t Starve in 2017, I’ve collaborated on something like a dozen books. All of these works, and the words they contain, have taught me something about myself and my own work.
Although I have enjoyed the opportunity to help authors get their words out into the world, each time I write a book for someone else, I wonder if I am hiding. I talk myself into believing this work is for a season; and most of the time, I believe it. But sometimes late at night and early in the mornings, when my mind is clearest and most honest, I find myself less comfortable with such explanations.
I know I can be more.
Ever since hearing about Ray’s letter that saved his life, I’ve considered writing my own. But I always chicken out, finding a reason to delay or get distracted with some other “priority.” It seems we all need a crisis or two to get honest with ourselves. Fortunately, I’ve had a few of those in recent years.
I know what it is like to wrestle with being good versus being whole. Granted, I have done things in life that others consider wrong but I understood to be quite harmless. Conversely, I know that I have been selfish and mean at times only to be congratulated by some for what looks like nobility. When measured from the outside, goodness is a bar. We ought to aim higher, for the kind of integrity Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote about, saying:
“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura Naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fountain of action and of joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being…”
What matters most to me is that. To live in a way that aligns with the person I believe I can be. Sometimes, this means being good; other times, it means being honest. Always, it means being true. Whole. It is only appropriate, then, that I began writing my own “Read this or die” letter to myself, one I have started many times in my mind. Perhaps now, I am a little more ready to become myself. And I have my friend Ray, and the book we wrote together, to thank for that.
Why You Should Write Yourself a Letter
The right words can change just about everything from the person you marry to the job you get to even where you end up living. How we communicate can have a dramatic impact on all kinds of things, and we all should take the importance of our language seriously. “One day,” Kerouac wrote, “I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
In my case, finding the right words meant letting go of the wrong ones, such as “should” and “never,” exchanging “What if?” with “Let’s!” and seeing what unfolded as a result. It meant meeting my soulmate, beginning a new kind of life’s work, and more. For Ray Edwards, it meant reorienting his understanding of a debilitating disease and believing something good could come from something quite bad.
What might finding the right words mean for you?
When there is enough emotion and persuasion behind them, what you say has the power to change a life, maybe even your own. Words matter, perhaps more than we often realize. Underestimating this power is like mistaking the crackle of thunder in the sky for a buzzing of an insect’s wings. In the same way, the key to your next breakthrough could be where you least expect, hidden in something so simple as a well-written letter.
Speaking of words, I’ve enclosed the first thousand or so from that brand-new book I mentioned. If you have ever faced a situation in life that feels hopeless, one in which you wondered what power you had to change it, this is for you. Below is an excerpt from Ray Edwards’ latest book Read This or Die, which is already topping the charts.
“Introduction: Saved by a Sales Letter”
In May 2011, my body began to rebel against my brain. At a business conference in Las Vegas, I was in the audience taking notes, having trouble keeping up with the speaker. My mind would think what I needed to write, but then my hand moved too slowly to get it down. That’s odd, I thought. The person leading the seminar noticed I was having trouble and stopped presenting to ask from stage, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, distracted. “I’m just not feeling well.”
This statement was true, but something else was happening, too something that scared me. As I paid closer attention, I noticed my handwriting getting smaller and smaller, to the point of being practically illegible by the end of the day. When I returned to my room, I did some googling, and the number one result for my symptoms was Parkinson’s disease. I sighed. Returning home, I called our family physician in Spokane to tell him my symptoms. “Come in,” he said. “Let’s talk.”
During our visit, my doctor said, “You’re much too young to have Parkinson’s disease, so I want you to stop being concerned about that. I’m certain that’s not what it is. You’re forty-five years old, Ray. That can’t be what’s happening.”
I agreed with him, nodding, already feeling a small sense of relief.
“But to make you feel better,” he continued, “I’ll get you an appointment with a neurologist who can verify that, so we can figure out what’s really going on. I think it’s probably an impinged nerve in your shoulder.”
It was months before I was able to see that neurologist; and though I left that initial appointment with my family doctor feeling better, my symptoms only continued to worsen.
Something was definitely wrong.
On September 22, 2011, the day before my forty-sixth birthday, my wife, Lynn, and I went to see the neurologist. I didn’t know it at the time, but the doctor made a diagnosis within sixty seconds of seeing me. She knew the hallmark signs, and I had them all.
After five minutes of examination, she said, “I think you have Parkinson’s disease. This is serious. It is degenerative, which means it only gets worse. There’s nothing we can do to treat it or make it better. It is eventually going to make you dependent on other people to do the most basic of tasks, like getting dressed and eating. You’re going to have difficulty walking. You could be in a wheelchair or otherwise disabled in seven years. You have a limited window on your ability to function normally. There are medications you can take to treat the symptoms, but they only work for a little while, and they cause their own side effects that are problematic.”
“This is serious. It is degenerative, which means it only gets worse. There’s nothing we can do to treat it or make it better.”
Lynn and I stared at the neurologist, stunned. Surely, we thought, there had to be another way. Devout Christians that we were, we considered the diagnosis a test of faith, a good setup for our new career as healing evangelists. Once I got healed, I’d be able to use such a testimony for the edification of others: teaching and preaching and healing, just like Jesus.
My whole life, I’d prided myself on being a positive thinker, someone who could imagine a better future for himself and then create it. I believed in the power of prayer and physical healing, even modern-day miracles. I’d followed the self-help gurus for decades and taught their practices and philosophies in my own business. As an established copywriter, I thought you could convince anyone to believe anything. And here I was, sitting in a neurologist’s office, unable to accept what she was telling me. I was sick, and there was no getting better? Really? This, by the way, is the part of the grieving process they call denial.
The morning I experienced my first few shuddering tremors, a few months after that initial diagnosis, my coffee cup looked like one of those mud puddles in Jurassic Park, quaking with each unexpected vibration. A monster was, indeed, approaching. That was the first time I felt real, honest-to-God, gut-wrenching fear about what was to come. And as the reality of the diagnosis set in, I got scared—for myself, for my wife, for my family and employees and everyone who was depending on me. I wasn’t ready to die and certainly didn’t want to go this way, as a shaky invalid who can’t control himself and is dependent on others. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, I thought. This isn’t fair. What did I do to deserve this? I don’t have to tell you that none of these thoughts made my life one iota better, but I still thought them. Then, after a long period of wound-licking, catastrophizing, and reflecting, I turned to an ally I never would have considered. It wasn’t faith healing or positive thinking that saved me. No, it was something far less conspicuous.
I didn’t write my Parkinson’s away, but I used words to understand what I could and could not control. This was a long, difficult process. First, I questioned the diagnosis, trying to bargain with reality. I went for second and third opinions, looking for any “loophole” I could find and finding none. Then, I figured there must be a way out of this situation, some magic pill I could take to reverse the symptoms, a series of special words to recite that would convince God to heal this thing right out of my body.
As an entrepreneur, I possessed the audacious belief that I could fix almost any problem, which served me well in many areas of life for many years. But now, that belief only served to make me angrier. I couldn’t fix this, couldn’t fix anything. I was stuck and didn’t have any way out of a terrible situation. I was desperate. So I did something nobody would ever have expected.
I wrote myself a letter.
All good letters, I’ve learned, end with a call-to-action, a step or two you can take right now to keep the momentum going. Here are a few to consider:
Pick up a copy of Read This or Die. It’s on sale this week and is one of the better looking books I’ve seen in some time (the design team did a great job). Ray is also giving away some great bonuses on his website for those who order this week.
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