Perhaps more than anyone else, writers know the power of words. Even few words. I used to belong to a critique group in Austin that was managed by successful author Karen Macinerney. It was an excellent group, and members always welcomed feedback. We met weekly at Bookpeople, so after several months, we weren’t just fellow writers seeking feedback from one another, we were friends and comrades in the battle to find just the right words.
The group members were kind with their critiques, but also didn’t soft step when there were issues with a chapter. But no matter how much we felt we’d messed up on a confusing plot point, character dilemma, scene setup, etc., someone would say, “You can fix that in just a sentence or two.” It was true, too. It didn’t take a complete rewrite or whole new section to get a story back on track. Just a sentence or two did the trick more often than not. In fact, the phrase just a sentence or two became a running joke in the group. It must have worked, because all members ended up published.
That phrase is true about life, too. As we plod through our day to day lives, we can find ourselves in a bind at work, a pickle at home, a mess with friends, a jam with family. Pick your noun combination. The results are the same. Life is flowing at less than optimum rates. We are sad, angry, stressed, hurt, or some combination of multiple unhappy emotions. And quite likely, at least one other person is suffering their own mix of emotions and having a bad time of it. Sometimes all it would take to make things right is just a sentence or two.
Say that apology.
Express that compliment.
Admit the mistake.
Share the thought.
As a writer, I fret over every word choice. I sometimes rewrite a sentence or paragraph a dozen times before I’m satisfied it reflects all the nuances I was trying to convey in that scene or bit of dialog. In real life, I can’t do that. Words are much more realtime. There is no backspace and erase button before words have their effect, be it benefit or damage, to their target.
I do have a natural filter in my head and tend to silently repeat almost everything that comes out of my mouth before actually speaking out loud. Whether that’s a result of growing up as the oft-teased baby sister, being in trouble a lot when I was a kid (both at home and school), or a byproduct of years of thinking that way as a writer, is anyone’s guess. Might be a good thing my mother isn’t here to answer that question.
Regardless of how well I filter before I speak, I still make mistakes like everyone else. But more important, I often avoid saying the sentence or two that are (is? I’m never sure) most important. The sentences that would ease someone’s hurt or heal their heart. The sentence or two that would brighten someone’s world or make them feel like a million bucks. Why? Why do any of us do it. Sometimes we’re in a hurry and forget. If I had to venture a guess, though, I’d say that’s not the case. So what is it?
We writers do it all the time with our characters. If that apology is important to the plot, our character bucks up and says it, no matter how awkward we make them feel while doing so. If the character has to admit to screwing up before others step in to help solve the case or win the battle, well by golly the character all but grovels on the ground. (In some novels the characters actually DO grovel on the ground.) In the arms-length world of our imaginary characters, it’s easy to get them to do the right thing when it matters. Not so much for ourselves in real life.
Sometimes it’s that just a sentence or two is hard. Those words would make us vulnerable. Or make us feel weak. Or stupid. Maybe that’s true. Still, none of those are reasons not to do it. And what about unspoken compliments and praise? People sometimes avoid those sentences as much as the negative ones. I’m more stumped in pondering that. Perhaps there’s a deep-seated fear in people that to compliment another indicates a subconscious elevation of the recipient over themselves. Maybe those complimentary words take us back to childhood, where one child getting praised meant the other didn’t do as well. Who knows?
What I do know is that life is short. And the direction it is headed can turn on a dime. Not just in novels or short stories. Real life is much more nuanced and complicated than the longest novels ever written (the longest, published in 1653, is Artamène, or Cyrus the Great – it is 1.954,300 words/13,095 pages).
So next time you find you’ve written your own life into a box, take a few minutes and give it a good critique. What have you written poorly in your book of life? I’ll bet you can fix it right up with just a sentence or two.