I try to pay attention. Truly, I do. Still, I’m constantly searching for my car keys. It slips my mind that I should stop at the grocery for milk, or swing by the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. Occasionally, I neglect to feed the cat until she nudges at my foot, murmuring her complaint. Computer passwords dissolve into the ether, along with the names of former school chums, padlock combinations and the phone number of my favorite aunt.
People who understand such things tell me this everyday-forgetting is unremarkable. A little more age here, a few more-interesting things to ponder there, and the mind wanders off, unconcerned with milk, kitties or keys.
Over time, I’d even forgotten my promise to some blogging friends that I would tell them the story of the beginnings of The Task at Hand - specifically, how it received its title and tagline. Being a Janus-faced month, a time for pondering the past as well as looking toward the future, January seems as good a time as any to recount the story of those first, halting steps onto the path called “writing”.
In late 2007, I’d come to the point of wanting to learn how to post images to the web. In order to have a place to practice, I decided to start my own page in the blog section of Weather Underground. I’d joined the site in 2005 to learn about weather and hurricane tracking, and I was comfortable there. It wasn’t an obvious choice for a blog site, but I wasn’t a blogger. I simply was messing about, exploring and experimenting.
My first entry was a recipe for pecan pie, with a few photos of the Texas hill country thrown in for good measure. My second, a short entry detailing my trip through Kerr County, veered off into memoir. A few people seemed to like it, so I posted a third time and then a fourth. I enjoyed the experience, and began to post more frequently.
Two months and a few posts later, I joined the Bay Area Writers’ League. I’d never thought of myself as a writer, but I was curious to see what people who defined themselves as writers might look like. As it turned out, they looked very much like me – in love with words, eager to tell their stories, willing to spend precious hours listening to the halting efforts of beginners and eager to learn from the polished, compelling presentations of published authors.
At the January, 2008 meeting, I was introduced to the concept of “flash fiction” and decided to participate in the monthly contest. The challenge was to respond to a photo posted in the group’s newsletter with no more than a hundred words of either poetry or prose. When the photo was published, I recognized Sisyphus immediately. Too clever for his own good, Sisyphus may have brought his punishment upon himself, but images of his plight have compelled artists for centuries. Unfortunately, as I gazed at my first challenge, I had no idea how to cross the gap from image to words without falling into cliché.
Three days later, I was hand-sanding a boat rail and thinking about nothing much in particular when a line came to mind, fully formed. Deciding it was the first line of something, I looked at the wooden rail and my hands and found a title. Over the next few days, I combined sanding and word-shaping, seeking ways to join meaning and sound. In the end – and quite to my surprise – I found I’d written a poem rather than a piece of prose.
The Task at Hand
Even the right word takes effort.
Quarried from a crevice of the mind
it stumbles into context from a surprised tongue
then slips again toward silence.
Breaking chains of metaphor,
pulled from its page by the gravity of doubt,
it defies similitude
and heaves past frail allusion,
blocking passage after passage
with its heavy presence
until turned and nudged and tried again
for perfect fit
by one who never tires
the Sisyphean poet.
The Task at Hand won the little contest. I was so happy with it that, when April came and I began my new blog at WordPress, there was no question it would provide the title. A non-writer, I’d written a writer’s poem, a poem with room for all of the discipline, surprise, faith and teeth-gritting perseverance that writing requires. Did I know it then? Of course not. Even now I know its truth only in glimpses, in fits and starts, in those passing moments when a “right word” appears and finds its context.
Meanwhile, back at the Bay Area Writers’ League, it was customary for the winner of each contest to read their creation aloud at the next month’s meeting. After I’d read The Task at Hand, a fellow wearing a plaid flannel shirt and mismatched socks came up to me. ”So,” he said. “This your first poem?” I said it was, that I’d just started writing. “Then let me tell you something,” he said. “That poem’s like a suit of clothes two sizes too big. That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You keep writing, and in a few years you’ll start growing into it.”
Remembering his words today, I smile with new understanding. He didn’t say, “In a few years, you’ll have grown into it.” He said, “In a few years, you’ll start growing into it.” He was right.
At first, the tagline appended to my blog’s title was A New Writer’s Search for Just the Right Word. After about two years, I changed it to its present form, A Writer’s On-going Search for Just the Right Word.
Recently, I received an email from a reader who said, “Whenever I go to [search for your blog], my first instinct is to look for The Task at Hand – A Writer’s On-going Search for the Perfect Word“. Obviously you put a lot of thought into the blog name. But I couldn’t help wondering why “right” instead of “perfect”. I look at “perfect” as having more of an emotional [component] to it, the satisfaction that it is just the perfect word with the perfect feel. The word “right” carries with it a sense of correctness or strictness. I was just curious about your thinking.”
It’s an interesting question, one I’d never considered. My first response was to say that nothing in our world is perfect – no person, no flower, no performance, no meal. Imperfection is woven through the fabric of life, and to demand perfection in words is to risk bloodless writing.
Beyond that, it’s not simply a choice between “perfect” and “right”. The phrase itself matters. “Just the right word” suggests not only the end but the means – the process of writing itself. Hearing the phrase “just the right word”, I can’t help recalling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. In the version I learned as a child, Goldilocks tries out the Bears’ porridge, chairs and beds. At first she finds them in turn too hot, too large and too hard. Only after going on to experience too cold, too small and too soft was she able to say, “This is JUST right!”
Goldilocks’ story is a wonderful analogy for the experience of writers who sit and sift through piles of words, rejecting one and then another as being too long, too short, too foreign, too “street”, too archaic, too hip. Eventually, whether from a dictionary, a thesaurus or the crevices of the mind, a word emerges. With a sigh of deep satisfaction the writer eases it onto the page and says, “There. That’s just right.”
One of the best lessons for beginning writers – or accomplished writers, for that matter – is learning to recognize the truth that a search for just the right word signals neither inexperience nor inadequacy. Even the best among us hint at the necessity of the search, leaving the record of their words to nourish us as we continue growing into our own.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph.
from “Little Gidding” – T.S. Eliot