The Right Word

“The difference between the right word, and almost the right word,” someone in high school told me. “Is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I memorized the quote instantly, knowing it was brilliant, even without knowing that she was quoting Mark Twain to me.

There was just a huge difference between being struck by lightning, and being struck by a lightning bug. One was terrifying, visceral, tangible, and made me want to step away from any tall, metallic thing. The other was at worst, annoying, and at best laughable as I imagined my friend being slapped by a bug.

As a writer, I spend most of my time searching for that right word, that proper phrase. There’s no equation for it, no simple instructions for the hunt when sometimes I want to be visceral, sometimes I want to make the reader itch to move, sometimes I want to be annoying, and sometimes I want to punch a laugh between syllables.

If I squint my eyes, sometimes the right phrase piles together.

If I bang my head on the wall, occasionally I knock the right letters loose.

And sometimes, just standing in my kitchen, someone hands it to me.

My Dad paused beside the stove this afternoon, while I was pulling dinner off the burners.

“I started a new television show the other day,” he told me. “I think it might be like a romance novel.”

I tried not to laugh. My Dad has a habit of accidentally picking up romances, and then coming to me, wide-eyed, for help.

“It just reminds me of another show you guys used to watch,” he continued. “That one where when the guy was ready to be in a relationship, the girl wasn’t. And when the girl was ready, the guy wasn’t. Back and forth.” Dad looked at me, just to make sure I with him. “You know, the Windshield Wiper Romance.”

I stopped. I dropped the spoon I was using straight back to the counter. “That’s perfect,” I told him. I was grinning, almost laughing, but too interested in sharing it with someone else to break down just yet.

I twisted to look at my little sister standing behind me. I swung my arms back and forth like wipers. “Eeech, Eeerch, Eeech, Eeerch,” I said. “That’s the sound the audience makes, too.”

And we all snorted and giggled and laughed out loud, giddy from the right word.


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