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Writing: Finding the Right Word

Good writing is not about finding the right word. It is about almost finding the right word. A good writer knows that no phrase can fully express what is in a person's heart, so the best writing is that which does not try, but instead leaves a conscious space between what is felt and what is spoken. Into this space plunges the imagination of the reader, and effective writing is born.

For example, when Paul McCartney was first asked by a member of the press how he felt about the murder of John Lennon, his simple reply was, "It's a drag, isn't it?" Some people thought that line was callously flip -- those people are idiots. The response was perfectly beautiful, restrained, and forced the listener to imagine what McCartney might have been thinking.

McCartney himself perfectly defended the point a few years later in an interview with Playboy, when he said, "If I said anything about John, I would have to sit here for five days and say it all. Or I don't want to say anything." Exactly.

Or how about the final line of Randall Jarrell's poem "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"? "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." Cold and simple, far from the experience of a brutal death, and yet very, very close to it. Because we have to imagine the words the dead soldier might say about the way he died. The pain he might have felt. They are not given to us.

What of Robert Duvall's great lines in Apocalyspe Now, always the biggest laugh-getters for any audience seeing the movie for the first time: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," and the immortal "Some day this war is going to end"? Neither line comes anywhere near expressing what it says, and the huge gap between the words and their implications is where the humor lies.

None of this is to say that I am a minimalist. Or that I think words in art should not be chosen very carefully. But when I am reaching for an emotion, or seeking an effect on the audience, I don't think it is necessary to aim close to the emotion. Sometimes aiming far away is more useful.

This is, by the way, why I find political speeches, even the ones the pundits praise, so tiresome. Political speakers always try to get to the heart of the matter, they try to express the feelings of the audience with precision. This leaves me with a bored feeling. I don't want anyone talking for me. I want them to show they know what I am feeling without trying to put my feelings into words.

"But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract." -- A. Lincoln.
"I feel your pain." -- Bill Clinton.
No. Hell no.

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