I ran to my mailbox, breath bated, heart racing like a six-year-old on her first trip to Disneyland. Inside was the news that would decide the next course of my life: my acceptance (or not) into the Creative Writing program at the university at which I was already studying (and teaching!) English in their Master’s program.
When I tore open the envelope—small and narrow as it was—I felt like the heart inside my chest, the one that had so recently been beating faster than it might ever have beaten, would stop. Despite already having qualified to teach Composition at said university for the last year and a half, according to the Chair of the Creative Writing Graduate Program option in English, I did not have what it took to be admitted to study creative writing with my peers.
Not moments later, I dragged my feet forlornly into my apartment and called my mom, crying in long, drawn-out hiccup-cries like the little girl I felt like I was (at 26 years old) . . . because it felt like true tragedy. I wept into my pillow for what would turn out to be hours . . . and it made me a stronger person.
When I questioned the rejection decision to the Creative Writing Department, hoping it had been a mistake (it was not), I was told that I should “probably read a few books on writing and then reapply the following semester.”
Cue the string quartet from Titanic while the ship is sinking.
But because of the teaching program I’d been in, I’d fortuitously taken a bunch of (previously thought) unnecessary Rhetorical Theory classes to prep me on how to do my best work in the classroom. Well, it turned out that those classes were exactly the classes I needed if I were to apply for the Rhetoric and Composition specialization. So as fate would have it, I applied for, and was accepted to, the Rhetoric and Composition specialty in my graduate program, and I never looked back. (Well, maybe a few times, but I digress.)
As I remember those circumstances of rejection through the lens of my life today, it turns out that studying the art of words and persuasion couldn’t have been a better degree for me. Not only did it open up a slew of doors for me professionally (“You have a degree in rhetoric? You must be smart!”), but it also opened up the way I was able to see the world. Focusing my studies on the history, function, and importance of rhetoric taught me that each and every word, when chosen mindfully, will more effectively inform, persuade, or motivate my audience toward whatever end I aim for. Basically, minding my Rs and Cs (get it? Rhetorics and Compositions?) will ensure that I’ll get my way more often!
Considering that I use my degree and training every day now, I thought it appropriate to share just how. Let’s look at a sentence from Chapter 6 of a book I worked on this year by some of my favorite authors, Tom Lotrecchiano and Joe Schmidt. I persistently pored over this for several iterations:
“The next morning, the four of us met downstairs in the classic hotel coffee shop—dark wood, paneled ceilings, and blown glass fixtures, and semi-artsy prints on the walls.”
Often one word can make or break the clarity of a sentence. In the above sentence, I toyed with whether or not to use “semi-artsy.” Would it come across as snooty? It would have been how the guys felt at the time when they were in the coffee shop, but I considered other words, too, like commercial, tacky, or boring, even. But I knew that such choices would communicate a different feeling entirely to the reader from what I wanted to portray. And if my intention is to connect with my audience (like my idols Plato and Aristotle so poignantly insist), the audience who would understand that “semi-artsy” would communicate exactly the intellectual space Tom and Joe were in (their company made custom photo-to-canvases), I had to be willing to choose the risky word/phrase—the word that felt most true to me and Tom and Joe, even if it wouldn’t be right for someone else.
My experience also came into play recently while I was working on a book in which the author, while a successful businessperson, often used words incorrectly or created new combinations of words, like “resignate” as a combination of resign and resonate. Thanks to my eye and ear for rightness in write-ness, I’d sit at my desk and gently chew the inside of my cheek, thinking.
How could I effectively communicate this hybridization of words to make the client feel heard and seen, but not butcher the very language that makes me giddy? In short, I’d come up with a list of alternative phrases for the client like: thoroughly resonated, complete with understanding, or clear and resolved. And when the client and I would find the phrasing that met in the middle and felt right to both of us, we’d settle on it in the manuscript and move forward onto the next mini-linguistic-challenge.
In short, this kind of thoughtful consideration happens with every piece I write, whether it be a blog, an article, a chapter, or a book for a client. When I sit down to write, it flows freely. I don’t censor myself when I draft, because I find that when I do, it feels like I’m being strangled. (I’m not dramatic. EVER.) Instead, I get all the jumbled words and thoughts onto the page and let my creative genius know it is safe to be as crazy as it wants to be. I consider how each word is going to impact the reader, and I do it carefully.
I’m sure I’d have come to a similar conclusion about the weight of words had I been accepted into the Creative Writing option in grad school, but it certainly wouldn’t be informed by millennia of philosophy to back up the value of specific word choice in the art of communication. And for that perceived failure, today, I am beyond grateful.