Not long ago I was asked to name my favorite book from childhood, and whether I remembered a specific line from that book.
The first is not an atypical question for a writer to get, and you'd think it would be easy to answer. But, like most writers, books played a huge role in my childhood. I was a voracious reader, so--a favorite?--I had many: CADDY WOODLAWN, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and endless numbers of ghost stories, fairy tales, and biographies--lots of biographies.
But there was one book which I turned to over and over. I read and reread LITTLE WOMEN usually about once a year, until the cover fell off and the spine was broken. So when I was asked to recall a line from the book, it's no surprise that the words came easily: "...on the bosom where she had drawn her first breath, she quietly drew her last." The description of Beth's death managed to say so much about family, about motherhood, about the link between birth and death, about peace, in such a few words. I was in awe. That was when I was introduced to the power of words.
I remember an interview with Amy Tan in which she complained, "They [readers] never ask about the words." It's true. No one ever asks us how we feel about words. And yet, we all fell in love with words and their power at some point. It's a heady experience to harness those little powerhouses to tell a story. To quote Rush Limbaugh (and I promise it's the only time I'll ever do THAT), "Words mean things." Choose the wrong word and you don't say what you mean. You've squandered that power.
If we're good, we choose the right words, the ones that say exactly what they mean. If we're great, we choose words that say even more. We choose words that speak of love and life and death as simply as describing a breath.