Word Clouds and Why We Tell Stories

January 8, 2020 § 9 Comments

cloudBy Alison Alstrom

Once in a writing class I was asked to explore the words I use, especially those that are my “signature words.” I still have no idea how to know what those words are. If I had to guess, I’d probably say they are words like death, grief, and sad, because those are the kinds of things I write about.

One student in that class said she wasn’t comfortable writing about herself and was working in memoir in part to accustom herself to doing so, to break through the discomfort, or grow numb to it. Funny, because I’m not comfortable writing about death, even though that seems to be the topic of everything I write. I’m not comfortable writing about my grief, about how the deaths in my life have affected me. Twenty years ago, I gave up painting because death kept creeping in. I didn’t want to be that dark girl that paints about death all the time. More than “didn’t want to be”—it was a desperate visceral kind of avoidance.

So I poured a bunch of my writing from the several months prior into the website Wordle.com *, a site that shifts through your prose and coughs your words back in cloud form, ordered by font size from most-often-used to less-often-but-still-often-used. I was happy to see that my biggest words were not death words, but life words, like love, family, and brother and sister. Also among the largest were words about time, like later, still, and moment and hours, and remember. I realize that this exercise is probably meaningless, that words that would strike us as signature to someone’s writing would not necessarily be the ones that appear most often in a piece of their prose, but would rather be words that are specific to the choices they make when writing, like saying “gaping maw” and “terrifying hollow” instead of just “hole” or “space,” both examples from my recent writing that didn’t make it into the word cloud.

Yet the word cloud speaks clearly to why I tell stories and make paintings to begin with, and made me think of an earlier writing class, when I was asked to consider the “what” of my writing—what it is, and what motivates us to make it. I wrote then that I wanted to stop time, to hold on to the magnificence of moments before they slip away, and to write portraits of the heroes and saints that populate my world.

Giving up painting 20 years ago was a mistake. It turns out that sometimes, not telling your stories is more painful than the stories themselves. I guess I took this writing class in part to accustom myself to that, to break through the discomfort of telling my sad stories, because I have learned that not telling them is worse.

Then just for fun, I put a single piece I’m working on into the Wordle site. It’s a story about a friend, Jack, who died suddenly just as our relationship was beginning to shift toward romantic intimacy. It was after Jack’s death that I stopped painting. The words from the word cloud that jumped out at me the hardest fell easily into a little summary of the piece:

One time work,
later friends,
loved, shared, held
now family.

(Then) long night happened
Deep conversation, desire
Something took –
Love found.

Early morning,
Man left –
Walked away, died.

Make painting always, tiny self.
Jack’s big body

Make painting always, tiny self.  I wrote those words out by hand, and taped them to the wall above my bathroom mirror.


* Wordle.net no longer functions (nor does the iteration of Alison’s essay that produced the word cloud she writes about above) but readers can find a similar resource and make their own word clouds at wordclouds.com


Alison Alstrom lives in Portland, Oregon, where she recently completed the Atheneum Fellowship year at the Attic Institute. Previously, she attended the San Francisco Art Institute with a focus on oil painting. She is fortunate to be companion to the best dog ever (a provable fact), and is committed to maintaining a creative life both in spite of, and in service to the demands of work and family.

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