In Search of the Right Word:
A Meditation on the Writing (and Rewriting) Life
by Teresa Burns Murphy
I spent a lot of time in graduate school sitting in the hallway outside my advisor’s office. I’d fidget. I’d fret. I’d check and recheck the time, waiting for the precise moment of my appointment to roll around. Then I would tap tentatively on his office door.
“Come in,” he’d say in a voice that didn’t sound all that welcoming.
As I talked to him about my latest project, he’d remove his glasses and rub his forehead, grimacing as if he were in pain. Frequently, before I even finished speaking, he’d regard me with an icy stare and tell me how I’d gotten pretty much everything wrong. His comments were usually accurate, but his delivery left a lot to be desired.
Often, after these sessions were over, I’d meet with a friend to discuss the advisor’s remarks. This man was also her advisor, and we found these postmortems to be beneficial. Following one particularly brutal session, my friend listened patiently to my tirade.
When I finished, she gave me a sympathetic look and said, “I’m sorry he dismissed you.”
In that moment, I envisioned a judge pounding a gavel and shouting at an earnest petitioner, “Case dismissed!” I imagined a boss slapping a pink slip into the open palm of an employee who was expecting a paycheck and yelling, “You’re dismissed!” I heard a teacher, exasperated by a group of students’ lack of comprehension, bellow, “Class dismissed!”
Most importantly, I felt validated. I had known that my advisor could be curt with his criticism, but to be dismissed evoked so much more. I had been booted, discharged, given the ax, and ushered out. And then I began to think of my own tendency to be dismissive and wondered who had felt dismissed when interacting with me. I was determined not to be dismissive or dismissed.
The impact of my friend’s word choice is precisely what propels writers to tear into their first drafts as well as many subsequent drafts, sometimes crossing out and replacing a single word dozens of times. Why do we put ourselves through such a painstaking process? The right word can make us feel heard. The right word can spark reflection. The right word can unlock the knowledge that is inside of us, helping us recover feelings we thought had been lost. So, we keep listening, we keep reading, and we keep writing (and rewriting) in an attempt to find those elusive right words – the ones that will resonate with readers.
(Read Teresa’s wonderful essay Peeling Away the Mask.)