Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The (Im)Perfect Word

Writers are always looking for the perfect word, the perfect sentence. Put a bunch of writers together for a little while and you’ll most likely hear one of them declare “I love that word” in response to something someone has uttered.

We are not normal (and don’t want to be); we actually discuss our favorite words. Mine is “gloaming”. A friend of mine prefers the word “Sabbath”. Another favors “diaphanous”. Writers are people who love words, plain and simple; that’s our craft, our job.

Of course it is the sound that draws us in first. How can a person not appreciate a word like “diaphanous” if they say it aloud? So yes, we pronounce these words audibly, savoring them like fine chocolates on our tongues. We roll them around in our mouths, feel them taking flight from our lips. Yet it is more than that. We even love the way words look. Take another perfect word for an example: Appalachia. Not only is it interesting to say (mostly because the way a person says it can tip you off to whether they are a native of the place or not—a true Central Appalachian says “App-uh-latch-uh” while non-natives or people from other parts of the mountain range usually say “App-uh-lay-chuh”) but it is also beautiful to see spelled out, and made even more beautiful because the shape of the word so perfectly captures what it is describing. Look at the steep mountainsides of those four As, the rolling hills atop those ps and the c and the h. Notice the straight-trunked trees of the l, the h, and the i, the perfectly-round dot of sun floating over the landscape (the dot on the i). The word looks like what it’s talking about. A word doesn’t get much more perfect than when it’s beautiful to say (whichever way you say it), interesting to look at, and exact in what it is explaining.

So, among a writer’s many, many responsibilities (illuminating an essential truth, entertaining and informing, preserving, telling a good story, capturing sense of place, etc.) there is that greatest responsibility: choosing the perfect words with which to tell your story and using these words to form perfect sentences that will lead to perfect paragraphs and scenes and eventually a perfect book. Of course there are very, very few perfect books, but as writers that is what we must strive for and I believe that some writers have achieved that (My Antonia by Willa Cather, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Home by Marilynne Robinson…I could name a few more). And it is definitely possible to create the perfect sentence and to choose the perfect word.

But what happens when the perfect word is one that you do not want to use?

This has happened to me a few times, but only in my latest book did it become particularly troubling to me. Thus, this missive.

In the past, it has only been the necessary, ugly words that have been bothersome: it, and, of, but, that, so…words that we absolutely must use, but don’t find particularly attractive. A few times I have been confronted with my own prudishness, too. I admit it: I have consciously tried to keep the f-bomb out of my novels, mostly because I believe that I shouldn’t write anything in my books that I wouldn’t say in front of my children, or my mother, or a total stranger.

I must go out on a limb here and confide that I do like the f-word, as words go. Sometimes it’s the absolute perfect word. But it’s also incredibly overused, to the point of having lost its power. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s a very vulgar word. It’s mostly that –ck at the end that makes it so simultaneously perfect and offensive. And while I might totally appreciate this word privately it’s not something I would ever say in front of just anyone; frankly I think it’s the height of tackiness to say this loudly in a public place, as so many people are want to do, or even quietly in front of someone I’ve just met. So, to make a long essay short, my point is that I’ve only used it in print once, and that was when I knew that I could not possibly be true to the character in the short story I was writing without using it. There was no getting past the fact that she would use that word. No way. The character was very drunk, very high on cocaine, she was very frustrated, and she insisted on saying that word in print. In other scenarios in my writing I had always suggested that the characters might be saying it off-screen or, more likely, I was dealing with characters that would have never uttered the word to begin with. So I had been able to very naturally avoid it while remaining true to my writing. But in this one story the woman had to say it. So I let her, and because I knew that it was absolutely right and true for that character, I wasn’t ashamed.

But now I have chosen a perfect word for a character of mine to utter, and I can’t seem to let go of the guilt. As I do whenever I can’t do anything else, whenever I am completely powerless and confused and don’t know what else to do, I have to write to try to make sense of the situation.

In my new novel, Eli the Good, which was published in September 2009, one of my characters, Edie, a tough, twelve year-old girl in 1976, addresses her 11 year-old male best friend, Eli, as a “retard” (the pronunciation is important (rë-tard) mainly because those two short syllables make it sound meaner). Eli has come out of his house early in the morning and is getting ready to jump on his bicycle when Edie, who is sitting in her adjoining back yard, hollers for him to come over. Eli, who is somewhat mesmerized by the beauty of the morning, pauses before responding, and stares at her. She asks him if he is coming or if he is going to just stand there and stare at her “like a retard.”

I really, really struggled with using that word. I went back and forth on it many times. I wanted Edie to address him some other way. I tried to get her to call him a dummy, or even a dumb-ass, or a dork. Not because these words mean the same thing as “retard” but because in her mind they do. But I knew Edie. I had lived with that character for years, in my head, and I knew that that is what she would call him. That’s just who she was. So after struggling with this one small little short word for months and months, I relented, let the character win, and I turned in the final manuscript with that word included.

I have regretted it ever since.

I know that people are going to write angry letters to me, accusing me of political correctness and self-censorship and such. But this is my struggle, and I believe it’s a struggle we should all have.

Words have power. Words mean something. Words live and breathe.

I regret it, however, because “retard” is one of the words I have absolutely forbidden my children to say. I also hate it when someone refers to something they consider bad or boring as being “gay” or when someone pronounces someone as being “trash.” I was raised in a trailer until I was almost nine years old, and nothing ever cut as deep as the time I overheard someone called “trailer trash.” Since their definition of trailer trash was anyone who lived or had lived in a trailer, then that was me, too. And my parents. And lots of people I know, respect, and love. Not trash. Human beings.

It is the carelessness with which these words are used that bothers me so profoundly. We must always think of the meaning and connotations of words before we spout them. Also, when someone uses a word like “retard” or “gay” or “trash” in this way, it changes the meaning of the word. It distorts the meaning into something cruel.

Take the word “retard”: its entire intention as a word—in Edie’s usage, and in the way most people use it nowadays, at least—is to insult, to negate, to imply superiority, to hurt.

That whole thing about sticks and stones breaking your bones but words never hurting you is wrong. I would argue that I’ve been far more hurt by words than by sticks and stones. And the main thing, of course, is that negative words usually lead to the sticks and stones. All wars are rooted in words to begin with, in arguments, in the careless dispensing of insults. I’d say it’s pretty rare that a fistfight is mute, or that a killing is preceded by silence. Yet words have the power to heal, too. Words make prayers and terms of endearment and declarations of love and peace.

As a writer, I realize the power of words. That’s part of my job. But it is also part of my job to listen to my characters, to know them so well that I know what they eat for breakfast every morning, that I know the contents of their purses and billfolds, that I know what words fit correctly in their mouths or not. Sometimes these characters do things I don’t want them to. In The Coal Tattoo, for example, I tried every way in the world to convince Anneth to not leave Matthew. I loved Matthew. But she didn’t. And they say things I don’t want them to.

Which brings me back to what Edie says in Eli the Good. The main reason it bothers me is because this book is being marketed as a young adult novel (which means it’s for everybody) and I certainly don’t want kids to think I’m condoning the use of that word. Usually I just take it for granted that readers know that the characters are the ones speaking; not me. But in this case, I can’t help thinking of some middle schooler thinking because a word is in print that makes it okay. It doesn’t. As much as I love words, I do not agree with all of them. I suppose it would be foolish of me to wish that some of them didn’t even exist, but secretly, I do wish that. Because then some sticks and stones might have been avoided.

Ultimately, however, a writer’s responsibility is to report the truth. Even in fiction. Especially in fiction. And as much as it pains me for that word to be in print, to know that that word is being used to damage and hurt people (and to stereotype an entire group of people), I still believe in words. All of them, even if I don’t agree with them all.

21 comments:

Amy said...

A beautiful post that reveals the goodness of your intentions as writer. Thank you for sharing so openly your "regret."

Teresa Kravtin said...

Very thoughtful and provocative. Any one who knows you or your writing senses your honesty to your characters and yourself. People aren't perfect, nor should characters be, because they are reflections of ourselves or people we know. As a parent myself, I struggle with the words that are bandied about in the sphere of teenagers today, and try to guide my own child in his interpretation of his world. We all struggle in this way. Thank you for putting it into words so eloquently.

Marianne Worthington said...

Love the word "blackberry" (pronounced black-burry) and this poem about blackberries and words by Galway Kinnel:

Blackberry Eating
by Galway Kinnell, from A New Selected Poems (Mariner Books, 2001)

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched or broughamed,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry eating in late September.

Patti said...

Silas!! That was THE word in 1976! And, I'm sooo bad about the f-word...oh, my! I'm going to try to do better!!! Thank you for your good thoughts.

GeekGoddess said...

Language has the power we give it. It has the power to hurt or to heal. Sort of like the struggle of good vs evil, it all depends on whose hands it falls in.


And my favorite words is onomatopoeia. :)

Tom C. Hunley said...

Great post, Silas. I especially appreciate your comments about "trailer trash" being a hurtful term. In MFA school, someone turned in a poem called "White Trash," and no one but me had a problem with the poem (which was everything you might expect a poem called "White Trash" to be). I remember thinking, "What am I doing here?"

Leeuna said...

I struggle daily with the language of my characters. I don't use profanity, I don't condone it, and quite frankly I don't like to read it, but sometimes the character just wants to blurt out a nasty word or phrase despite what I want. I've trashed one novel for that very reason. My main character had a very colorful personality. (I tried to rewrite her but she didn't seem real).

I guess I've failed as a writer on this one.

I've often wondered how other writers handle this problem. I suppose it's a constant battle for us all.

HannahJ said...

As the mom of a child with special needs I am of course disappointed that you decided to keep it in. Who ever made up the sticks and stones saying didn't have a special needs kid. The real issue with the word retard is how dehumanizing it is to millions of kids who have to hear it daily in school, on the playground, and in every day life. They don't know how to turn the other cheek, they just take it and it hurts. They can't defend themselves like other kids. Words hurt and that's the danger of insisting that a made up character needed to use the word because in fact you needed to use the word. And yes, it's just another person dismissing what the entire special needs community is asking you not to do.

Bobbi Buchanan said...

I appreciate this post, Silas, and I respect your philosophy on using profanities and carefully weighing whether you would want your children or mother to read them in your work. Bravo.

Elaine Drennon Little said...

I love Huck Finn, despite all the controversy, and Big River is one of my favorite musicals. To me, the story between Huck and Jim is one of the greatest love stories ever told: their fights were horrible, but don’t good stories need conflict to be real stories? Huck uses the ONE word I’ve have never let my children, at any age, use in my house, but in the time period Huck Finn was written, Huck would have used that word, frequently, and used it in the most derogatory way. To substitute any other word would have killed the story’s authenticity.
The Holocaust and Slavery are two issues often chosen as the backdrop for fiction. Writers have been criticized for the amount of graphic content such depictions include, but they have also been praised for painting realistic pictures of a painful but very real part of our history.
A teacher of 27 years, I spent my first six in special education. I have the utmost respect for parents and advocates of special needs children, and I try to include them in all ways possible in my current field, but Silas’s story is set before PL 94-142 was passed, and long before it was put into practice in the deep south. Silas used the word that would have used by not only by that particular character, but by many of his characters during that time period. Leaving out “re-tard” would not have changed the story, but would have deprived the reader of another link with time and place. For those of you who have read the book, imagine leaving out the term “baby killer.” The basic structure of the book would have remained the same, but that blunt and painful phrase would have stolen a single moment in time that adds greatly to the feeling of living in that time. We are taught as writers to fully develop our characters—isn’t the omission of a character’s words a blatant refusal to develop that character to the best extent of our knowledge?
In my writing, which rarely leaves twentieth century South Georgia, I use the “n” word far more than I want, but only with characters who have no substitution within their vocabulary. A close friend, reader, and fellow writer tells me she has no problem with this, but would “knock me into next year” if I, personally, used the word. We laugh, then she tells me she’d never speak of me in the terms she uses for people of MY color in the slavery stories she often writes. I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes we need to see pain and hardship written graphically on the page before we can realize the extent of that pain: Seeing it in Technicolor can help us understand its severity, and even GAIN us as advocates in the fight towards making things better. Sometimes, when you haven’t BEEN there, someone else must take you there before you really understand.
For the record, taking me back to the heart of this thread, my favorite words of both extremes are “zealot” and “reverie.”

Hazardgal said...

As a retired Special Education teacher, that word is like throwing acid into my eyes. I cringe to hear it even now. My own grown kids, who often champion the disabled, sometimes use it. I want to run for a switch; they know better. Growing up, I wasn't "allowed" to even say "Shut up!" So, I tried to teach my children to be kind.

However,as writers and artists, it's hard to reflect reality when we are often more civilized than a character or subject may be. When you write horror stories, you show terror but do not condone it. All fiction is like that.

A. Grey said...

Great post. I must say that I could speak of words and their meanings forever. One of my favorites is Appalachia! Of course, it helps that I was raised in Appalachia, and grew up running wild in the WV mountains...

I love the F-bomb, but have yet to put it in writing. The funny thing is that I get great satisfaction in using it verbally (when no other word will do and I'm not near young children or in public) and when I write it, it just doesn't have the same affect.

As for your use of 'retard' I have mixed feelings. My sister's husband's mother taught Special Education until her recent death from cancer. I understand the derogatory connotation.

That being said, I grew up using the word retard because I grew up learning to ride horses from a woman who used very proper english. She often said things such as 'Don't start mixing grain yet because we have only a few minutes to spare right now and that is a very retarded process.' Meaning that it was slow and hindersome and would take time. I also grew up learning music and heard retard used in that manner. It wasn't until I was in middle school that I understood other people used the word in a derogatory way.

Another thing to remember is the age of your characters. Regardless of what other people think, you must be true to the situation represented in your story. Unless young kids are going to be reading it, you aren't going to be profoundly affecting anyone's outlook on things. In fact, if my mother (a school teacher) read that scene she would just roll her eyes and say 'typical children'.

While using the word retard in a derogatory manner might cause pain to some people, in a way, you give that word the very power you don't want it to have by responding to it in just that way. Does that make sense?

Milton said...

I hope a desire to write clean is a trend that keeps going. Characters can get unruly at times. I think it might be good for some of them to hear a voice from the past that says "Don't even think about letting that word get past your lips." We would all know the character was about to fling it out. Sometimes we have to face ugliness to correct it. Eventually, maybe they will think of 'horse feathers' first. :)

Suzanne said...

You did the right thing, Silas. Above all, as a writer, you must tell the truth, get out of the way of yourself/it and let it flow onto the page (or screen).
P.S. I love "cinnamon"

Feathers in the Wind said...

Contrast ... life vs. death, dark vs. light. Those are the very keys of a writer's art. We put forth situations only to resolve them in some way. I could think of a dozen parallels, which I will spare you here except a simple one: lemonade.

If there was no sour pucker, would you seek so hard to welcome the taste of the sugar on your tongue? Done right, it's a balance too perfect for argument.

What a writer seeks -- or any artist, in fact -- is to present their own view of the balance. A one-sided scale is useless.

The lessons contained in a single word are immense, yes, but not immutable. Maybe I'm weird, maybe I'm not really a writer. (Now that is arguable!) Yet I have no favorite color, no favorite kind of dog or horse or even book. Nor word. I take them all for what they are: parts of the whole. Take any part away from the rest and you lessen the whole. It becomes uglier for the lack of completeness.

Be complete. Let go of the angst and tell the story. Please, Mr. House?

Randall said...

I often hear "hillbilly" used like that. Where I live now, it's considered by some to be clever irony, I suppose, to use the word "Bradentucky." To me, it has the same connotations as "trailer trash." But maybe I'm too sensitive.

CC said...

I think to have done any less would not be 'true', using a word in it's correct context is what you have chosen to do. Ensuing letters that may arise are really irrelevant when you have written what is true to the character.

It's an interesting struggle that you endure, and I enjoyed how you explained the love of the language. I often cringe when people use profanities because they have no ability with language.

Good luck with your new book.

Charity Singleton said...

I love that "gloaming" is one of your favorite words. It stood out to me as I read the closing pages of Eli the Good. I had never heard the word prior to that, but as I read it, I knew what it meant. It was the perfect word to express the haziness of endings that permeated those final scenes. And I love that the word that means so much to you could play so prominently in this book. I don't remember that you used it in the trilogy of books I read. When I reread them, I will be looking for it. Blessings!

Anonymous said...

I never have seen this blog before today. I have to say, I was actually happy in one way to see the word "retard" used in Eli the Good. Let me qualify that I do not like that word at all. But the word IS USED, and you're right, it is the word she would have used in that spot. I think it is good to be true to the character, in the same way I think it is right to respect people in real life who use words you don't like. I do not like to hear certin things in real life either, but I do not want my kids to think it is okay to run out and correct, immediately despise, or shoot a dirty look at someone for using a word that is sticks-and-stones to them, or others. You can never account for context and point of departure- and no person's choice of words is less valid than another person's choice of words. If there is hurt as a result, it is often unintentional, and is always an opportunity for someone to learn about the context or origin in a way that is not accusatory. Intention is not an easy thing to guess correctly, and I think we as a society think we know intention when we see or hear it. We are often mistaken, and miss out on a lot as a result. Yes, some people are just mean, but we can learn from that too. I hope parents discuss these things with their kids when they are encountered in books and in real life, and that all people consider the humans on BOTH sides of any given word. I do not hold it against Edie, and I hope I haven't had too many people hold similar gaffs against me.
Thank you for keeping it in there, and I hope you have moved through your regret.

Anonymous said...

I never have seen this blog before today. I have to say, I was actually happy in one way to see the word "retard" used in Eli the Good. Let me qualify that I do not like that word at all. But the word IS USED, and you're right, it is the word she would have used in that spot. I think it is good to be true to the character, in the same way I think it is right to respect people in real life who use words you don't like. I do not like to hear certin things in real life either, but I do not want my kids to think it is okay to run out and correct, immediately despise, or shoot a dirty look at someone for using a word that is sticks-and-stones to them, or others. You can never account for context and point of departure- and no person's choice of words is less valid than another person's choice of words. If there is hurt as a result, it is often unintentional, and is always an opportunity for someone to learn about the context or origin in a way that is not accusatory. Intention is not an easy thing to guess correctly, and I think we as a society think we know intention when we see or hear it. We are often mistaken, and miss out on a lot as a result. Yes, some people are just mean, but we can learn from that too. I hope parents discuss these things with their kids when they are encountered in books and in real life, and that all people consider the humans on BOTH sides of any given word. I do not hold it against Edie, and I hope I haven't had too many people hold similar gaffs against me.
Thank you for keeping it in there, and I hope you have moved through your regret.

K James said...

I am a high school teacher and would like (ok, LOVE) to use this essay with students in three ways: 1. To explain the importance of word selection in conveying a message; 2. As a model for great non-fiction essay writing; and, 3. With my Character Education students when we talk about stereotyping and labels. Permission to reproduce for classroom use?