Is writing precise words really important in a memoir?
Over the years, I have written energetically about the importance of writing precise words instead of generic ones.
I was dropping someone off at the bus station (aka the Intermodal Transportation Center) when I overheard an exchange that convinced me once again of the necessity for precision in speech–and, by extension, in our memoir writing. It was proof that generic words really do miss the mark and lead to confusing messages.
A grandmother was seeing her daughter (I presumed from the similarity of looks) and three grandchildren off—or perhaps it was the other way. 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.
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“Sweetheart,” the grandmother said, holding her arms out to hug him. The boy continued to look around elsewhere.
“Sweetheart,” the grandmother pleaded holding her arms out.
I thought, “This kid has a name. Why does this woman think the boy will know who ‘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. She was not using right words. In spite of her outstretched arms, the boy did not turn to her as he didn’t pick up who this “sweetheart” was.
Then, he happened to be distracted by something that made him turn and bring her in his line of vision. He saw her extended arms and went up to her.
Linking using the right word with memoir writing.
Now, what this had to do with memoir writing is her failure to use right words got her the results that imprecision always garners. “Sweetheart” is what I call vague, imprecise, generic words. It can be applied to anyone. Some people call the ticket seller “sweetheart.” Had she called out his name—”Robert,” for instance—wouldn’t the have turned around upon hearing his name, knowing she was addressing him? But, “sweetheart?” Who the heck is “sweetheart!”
Applying this insight—writing precise words—to your memoir, 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…
By both writing precise words and phrases that can extend meaning, you are contributing to characterization as well as to setting. “Oak on which my father had attached a swing” will add to your portrayal of your father. There ought to be no “empty calories” in your prose.
You get the idea. The clearer you are in writing precise words, the easier it will be for your reader to understand your memoir. The reader will be able to respond to you as you wish the reader to respond—instead of looking around while you are pleading “sweetheart, sweetheart.”
1. Reread something you wrote. Seek out the “Sweetheart!” words—the vague imprecise words that do not convey your intended meaning.
2. Ask yourself—yes, take a moment—”Is there something really special I intend to say here?” Perhaps “oak” is an adequate replacement for “tree” but might you also add “oak on which my father had attached a swing.”