Finding the Words

By Nalini Jones ’93

Thursday nights meant TAP to most of my Amherst friends. But on those evenings I set out, a laundry bag slung over my shoulder, to visit my aunt, Helen von Schmidt ’78, a professor in Amherst’s English department. We sat together in her red kitchen: a fire in the woodstove, a mystery on TV, sometimes a plate of brownies and, beside her mug on the checked tablecloth, several inches of student papers. She worked through them slowly. Every day, more seemed to sweep in, as if through her window. By the end of the term, she could hide behind them.

I admired her hard work in the vague way of one who also questioned it. Did other professors read so carefully? Could she hurry things along, give herself a break, cut back on assignments? Then, in my senior year, I became her student.

I had taken writing workshops before, pleasant experiences of other students musing about what had “worked.” We were so reassuring, so appreciative of each other’s intentions, however diffuse or dubious. But “Composition” with Professor von Schmidt required new rigor. We wrote brief autobiographical essays addressing assigned topics. When invited, we read our essays aloud and discussed the ideas, not the prose. Week after week, I sat in her classroom and felt astonished by what other students—people sitting quietly next to me—had written about their own lives. We didn’t linger on images, but 20 years later, I can clearly picture the car accident a classmate faced on one of his first runs as an EMT. While the course was not a forum for raptures about language, I’ve never forgotten another classmate’s description of his intense interest in the Titanic.

My own work? Less impressive. Yet I’ve kept every one of my essays, simply for Aunt Helen’s notes in the margins.

In Aunt Helen’s class, there was no room for false drama, false conclusions, falseness of any kind.

Really? appears frequently in those margins, a quiet challenge in tidy blue script. She knew how much the Red Sox mattered to my father. Yet: Your father has never been “rabid” about anything, she pointed out on my “fan” assignment. Hyperbole about a silly skirmish with my mother brought the reminder that I was not an easy child. She had no use for false drama, false conclusions, falseness of any kind. She noticed whenever I lapsed into language that was bloated, self-serving, extravagant or vague.

 Such scrutiny seemed exacting, a kind of constraint. I struggled against the idea that writing could demand so much: the sacrifice of a swift downhill run of words, even if they took me astray. “Rabid” was close enough, as long as I decided my sentence meant more than how my father actually felt.

But in that class, no phrase mattered more than what we knew to be true. If “rabid” did not quite describe my father, what did? What words could approach the silent, solemn intensity with which he watched a game? What did it mean that during desperate innings, he paced like an expectant father in another part of the house, afraid to throw off the game by watching it? How did such devotion begin? Down the rabbit hole of a single inept description, I began to wonder about my father as a boy; my grandfather, who died before I was born; my grandmother; even Aunt Helen. “Oh, she was an ice hockey fan,” Dad reported.

Eventually I realized Aunt Helen was teaching me a new way to write. “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around,” wrote George Orwell. “In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” Good writing is not a trick, a hedge, a soft drift of description to hide a half-considered idea. It is a search for truth, however small or nuanced, however unexpected. Finding the right word is just the beginning.

Aunt Helen might also have been teaching me a way to live, to pay attention in all the dash and rush. I’ve now written stories and essays, finished a collection, embarked on a novel. But there are also days when I have not written at all, rich, full days when I sat by a parent’s bedside and followed the progress of every breath, or watched one of my daughters learn to read and the other—in a retaliatory strike—teach herself to whistle.

These days I have stacks of papers to read, from tentative undergraduates and graduate students impatient to publish. I think of Aunt Helen and of the author John Banville, who speaks of what “a string of black marks on a white page” can miraculously become. One word and the next, I tell myself and my students. Every single one contributing, tipping the piece one way or another, creating or disturbing a rhythm, and guiding us to whatever we might be lucky enough to discover next.

Nalini Jones ’93 is the author of a story collection, What You Call Winter, and other short fiction and essays. A recent recipient of an NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize, she is at work on a novel.