Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The (Im)Perfect Word

Are sticks and stones really worse than a mean name?

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.

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.

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 wont 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 who would never have 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 is. 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.

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.

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 not to 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.