A few years ago. She was in the supermarket parking lot when I saw her. My old English teacher. I was enraptured.
“Enraptured” is one of those words writers often use because it contains three full syllables. And also because it’s not a word people use in everyday conversation.
You see, occasionally as a writer you find yourself going for big words that aren’t common words. There’s a sound reason for why you do this: so people will think you’re smart.
“Behemoth” is one of these big words—it means “big.” Another word is “shibboleth,” which is not a cuss word for agricultural fertilizer, but an actual word that means “common belief.”
So if you’re a new writer, and you’re trying to sound like a big shot, sometimes you consult your big bag o’ words and pull out some doozies. Although this is a waste of effort. Because a writer ought to just say what they mean.
At least, that’s what the woman in the parking lot taught me.
I was her adult student. And she was a beacon. A great tutor.
She taught writers there was no need for fancy words to describe beauty. In fact, this is one of the beautiful things about beauty itself. Beauty is simple. So simplicity is your best way to go.
Short words. Easy sentences. She taught that sparse elements were prettier than excess. In her opinion, the notion that writers must use complicated, flowery phrases was nothing but a big pile of shibboleth.
When I first started my community college career, I didn’t know many big words. I never considered myself to be particularly smart. I lack many educational qualifications. School was always hard for me. I believe I might have a mild form of dyslexia, but don’t quote me on taht.
All I know is that when you put me in a roomful of people at a cocktail party, I’m the guy hanging out in the kitchen, making friends with the catering staff. Because that is the side of life I come from.
I worked blue collar jobs. I even worked catering gigs. I come from people whose careers horsewhipped us into answering “Yessir” and “No, ma’am” to our superiors, even if our superiors were high-school sophomores with dental braces.
So I’ve never seen myself as a writer. In fact, I’ve never seen myself as an anything. I’m just a guy.
But the old teacher begged to differ. I was late 20s, trying to make something of myself, when she read my first real attempt at a short story. She handed it back and said, “This was really good.”
And she seemed to mean it.
I was so touched I bit my bottom lip. Because you don’t cry in front of your professor, this is a literary no-no. Melville did not cry before his professors. His Trig professor, maybe. Still, the idea that this woman thought I was unique was a behemoth thrill to me.
Then I looked at the paper she returned.
Across the top were big red letters: “Use simple words.”
She sent me home to rewrite my story on six separate occasions. Each time, simplifying it more.
The next several months were my education in sparseness. There were little things I learned to do.
I learned to eliminate wordy, aimless phrases like: “The man drove his ugly, sputtering, 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado eerily down the vacant, foreboding road toward the flaking, behemoth Victorian home.” And I learned to replace them with: “Oldsmobiles suck.”
But this wasn’t enough for the old teacher. Often my stories would be returned with more remarks like:
“No unnecessary sentences.”
“Make it shorter.”
“Delete 100 words.”
Over time I felt I had dumbed my writing down until I was writing in fragments. Sort of like. This. You’re reading. Here. But she insisted this wasn’t dumb writing.
So anyway, then I graduated from college. Life went on. I did a lot of non-exceptional jobs. I paid the bills. But somehow I managed to become a writer. Although I can’t figure this out.
And it was one summer day when leaving the supermarket that I saw her. This silver-haired woman, jogging across the parking lot, a dead ringer for Dorothy from the “Golden Girls.” Heading toward me.
I recognized her. A sweet woman who once told me I was somebody. When she approached, she didn’t ask how I was doing. She didn’t tell me how she was doing. Instead she blurted out: “My book club just started your novel.”
There I was. Biting my lip again. A stinging grew behind my eyes when we hugged. Because, if I’m being honest with myself, I’ll admit that most people didn’t expect much out of me.
But then, here’s the thing.
A few people did.