When I brought my son to the bus station (aka the Intermodal Transportation Center), I witnessed a thought-provoking exchange that convinced me once again of the necessity for precision in speech–and, by extension, in our memoir writing.
A grandmother was seeing her daughter (I presumed from the similarity of looks) and three grandchildren off. The grandmother had said goodbye to the two girls and there was a boy of about 10 whom she had not yet bid her fond farewell to. He was looking around the space, distracted by this and that and not paying much attention to what was going on.
“Sweetheart,” the grandmother said holding her arms out to hug him. The boy continued to look around elsewhere. “Sweetheart.”
I thought, “This kid has a name. Why does this woman think the boy will know who this ‘sweetheart’ is? Why is she so vague?”
“Sweetheart,” she repeated patiently, but she showed no insight into what was happening, no sense that her imprecise nomenclature was having the very effect one can expect from imprecision. In spite of her outstretched arms, the boy did not turn to her.
Then, he happened to be distracted by something that brought her in his line of vision and he saw her extended arms and went up to her.
Now, what this had to do with memoir writing is the imprecision of her language got her the results that imprecision always garners. “Sweetheart” is a vague, imprecise term. It can be applied to anyone. Some people call the ticket seller “sweetheart.” Had she called out his name–“Robert,” for instance–wouldn’t he have turned around upon hearing his name, knowing she was addressing him? But, “sweetheart?” Who the heck is “Sweetheart!”
Applying this insight to your memoir writing, how can you eschew naming things the equivalent of “sweetheart?” Well, you can resist writing about a “tree.” Instead, call it an “oak” or a “maple.” Instead of writing “we went some distance,” why not write “we went three miles?”
You can go further and find precise words for emotions. “Sad?” “Morose?” “Dejected?” “Depressed?” “Unhappy?” “Melancholic?’ “Woeful?” “Doleful?” Well…
You get the idea. The clearer you are in naming, the easier it will be for your reader to follow your lead. The reader will be able to respond to you as you wish the reader to respond.
Next time you are writing, ask yourself if you are using a “Sweetheart!” word.
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