Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight. In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.
The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).
The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi. The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired. On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:
“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.
“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.” Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group.
Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me. Surely, not my vocabulary, though. Right? My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office. He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage. I explained in much plainer English. He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”
The last event came at a meeting of a writing group. Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:
It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.
“Perfervid,” he said. “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator. You don’t want to do that.” But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller. You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.
I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).