Be Specific: Truthful Stories for Untruthful Times

All my life, people have confused my name with that of Lee Marvin, the actor known for playing hardboiled characters and also for live-in girlfriend Michelle Triola’s palimony suit in 1971. It happens time and time again. Sometimes people actually introduce me as the actor. Sometimes people try to turn the name confusion into a joke. In either case, each time someone dredges up Lee Marvin’s name, I cringe, even though I always quite enjoyed his performances. I cringe because by now both the confusion and the joke have become stale. That doesn’t keep each person, however, from either failing to recognize the error or else believing he or she is the very first wag to make that joke. It’s old news, I want to tell them. Now, it’s just annoying.

I doubt that anyone stops to think about the effect of their blunder or their joke. It threatens to erase me. It takes from me all that I believe I know about what it means to be Lee Martin, and I mean this Lee Martin, not the other Lee Martins of the world who are, like all of us, distinct and individual. This is a post about honoring people with the precision of our language. In our living and our writing, we owe it to others, ourselves, and the way we conduct our business, to pay attention to the exact names of people and things.

When it comes to writing, it’s easy to get lazy with our language. Let’s say we start with this as an example: A woman lived in a house with a tree in the front yard. Which woman? What kind of house? What kind of tree? Miss Maizy lived in a shotgun house with a mimosa tree in the front yard. Better. Its lacy leaves offered scant shade to the two beagle hounds, Bessie Smith and Lady Day, who slept on their sides in the bare dirt where the chinch bugs, plus the dogs’ wallowing had worn the St. Augustine grass clean. Even better. I couldn’t have written the second sentence without the specificity of the first. I can’t tell you how many times I had to revise that second sentence to make sure it was accurate What should the beagle hounds be named? What sort of grass? Details matter, and what we claim for them does, too. If I’ll lie to you about St. Augustine grass in the beginning, how will you ever be able to trust me when it comes to the exploration of characters and their situations as the narrative goes along? In particular, how will you be able to trust me at pivotal moments, especially at the end, when I claim some deeper layer of truth? In this case, specificity of language allows me to begin to create a particular world, inhabited by a particular person. Now all I have to do is let Miss Maizy react to a detail, and the narrative will be off and running.

The hounds had belonged to her husband, Portis, but after his heart gave out one day as he repaired track for the Fort Worth and Western Railroad, she resented the dogs—their baying, their mess left in her yard, their clamoring for food—and she’d decided to give them to her brother, Muskrat, on the promise that he never let her know what he did with them. The less she knew about him and his comings and goings the better. He’d just got out on parole from Huntsville Prison—robbing a Stop & Get One—and had taken up again with his old running buddy, Jimmy Young. Miss Maizy wasn’t happy—not one little bit—when she saw the two of them drive into her yard in Jimmy’s yellow El Camino.

Precision with language has invited details onto the page, and from there, I’ve invented other characters, given them a problem, created tensions, and established a narrative premise. Now I’m curious, as I hope a reader will be, too, to see what’s going to happen.

Specific names and specific details can create stories, and if there’s one thing we need right now in a culture where truth is under assault it’s accurate storytelling. What we call one another has always mattered. We all need to take the time to be specific.



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