Volume 10
An Online Literary Magazine
November 30, 2015


The Perfect Word


Anne Fox


Flaubert: searching for "le mot juste."


n the ladder to our store’s biography section for a Flaubert, I stopped, struck by a revelation as startling as the sunshine bursting through the fog into our street-front transoms. Here I was, half owner of the town’s main bookstore, surrounded by thousands of books, billions of words, and I hadn’t written an original sentence since college thirty-five years ago. What had I done these years, after all, but dabble in trivia—bead collecting, pottery, painting, terrariums—with the leftovers moldering in our garage.


“Arthur,” I called to my husband down at the counter, “I have a thrilling idea. I’m going to take up...I mean, delve, seriously, really delve...into writing.” The phrase “take up” did sound frivolous, what Arthur himself had said in his good-natured way when my bisque clay pots were drying all over the house, crowding the terrariums.


My husband hesitated in opening a box of new books and looked up at me with an expression of...was it puzzlement?


“And what greater muse,” I said. I flung out my arm to embrace the store and grabbed at the ladder sides not to topple off the rung.


With my goal to serve art, I looked to Hemingway, Austen, Nabokov, Lamott, Munro, Alexie, the reliables, for literary transfusion and inspiration. I plunged into an accelerated evening writing class, joining students almost a generation younger than I. Over the months, we were immersed in various reading and writing genres. When we explored erotic writing, my colleagues sneaked looks, with blushes and wink-winks passing among them. As if I might not have read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the voguish diaries of Anaïs Nin. But I ignored my fellow students.


With every writing exercise, no matter how basic—prompts, description, dialogue, scenes, character—I used Flaubert as my model and searched for le mot juste, that precision of diction to impress current and future readers. Buoyed by enthusiasm, I envisioned success, ultimately even a story collection and readings in bookstores like ours. And in homage to early writers, I devoted my twenty-five-year-old Olympia manual typewriter to my efforts. My husband’s high-tech computer would do for basic store business.


When I saw “Good! Send it out!” on my stories in a teacher’s enthusiastic scrawl, I prepared my submissions for the eyes of editors, with my husband checking format and copyediting final drafts—not that I credited him with writerly wisdom. I considered Arthur best at practical matters—catching typos and selling books—and didn’t ask for editorial advice. To my amazement, one form rejection followed another, all sounding the same. No explanations. What was I doing wrong? Some fellow students had said my writing was too controlled, old-fashioned. I should loosen up. What was “loosen up”?


My optimism shredding, I went to the dark side, where I read articles about the anguish of rejection and how to live with it. In class, negativity was not allowed; no one prepared us for rejection.


“It’s part of the process,” I told my husband one afternoon while we had tea in our back room. “I have to be patient, passionate, and persistent—the three p’s. They say it’s hanging in that predicts success, not actual talent.” I didn’t tell him that by now, some eleven months into my studies, amateur writers in my class took sides in the battle between God and Mammon, many with barely grudging admiration for any best seller being considered good literature, insisting it really depended on who you knew.


“By the way,” I said, “what do you think about the value of a best seller—I mean like on the list of The New York Times?”


“It means we might make some money,” he said. He raised his bristly eyebrows. “Does that surprise you?”


“I just hadn’t thought about it like that,” I said, now reconsidering the possibility of achieving best-sellerdom or needing a pseudonym.




Olympia manual typewriter.
One afternoon, while reshelving misplaced books and wondering if my recently rejected short story might work better as a novel or even a movie, the commanding voice of Griff Donahue, a writer friend, came from the answering machine in our office: “The editor at the local paper can use you. Go.”


I couldn’t disregard the authority in Griff’s voice, even on an answering machine. Was journalism to be my literary métier? I knew that García Márquez, Hemingway, Poe, even Margaret Mitchell, had been journalists. Nothing to be ashamed about in journalism, though I had thought of myself as more literary than journalistic, believing that fiction was the truth behind the facts.


The editor all but looked through me when I introduced myself at her desk the next day. Without a hello, she said, “Griff thinks you can write a senior column for us.”


Was she stating fact or challenge, relief or doubt? Her eyebrows didn’t inquire, her pale lips barely moved. A senior column? Was that journalism?


“Yes,” I said, trying to be equally inscrutable, although within me twitched nothing stronger than “Maybe.” So far, I had probed life only in fiction. What did I know about a column for a newspaper? And I did consider myself a smidgen short of seniorhood.


“I do know,” I said to Griff when I thanked him at the local coffeehouse, “there’s Liz Smith and there was Molly Ivins. And of course Ellen Goodman and Erma Bombeck and Dear Abby.” These women columnists didn’t belong lumped together, but Griff’s sideways smile gave me courage.


After checking seniors’ magazines for ideas and style, every other week I produced an 800-word piece for my imagined newspaper readers aged fifty-five and older. I did like seeing my byline in bold. The editor had taken a cursory look at my first column, nodded, and never spoke another word to me, never criticized, never rewrote, never edited. I managed to find my way through a maze of subjects to write about, from fortune cookies to facelifts and on to the mysteries of marriage, children, earthquakes, and chicken soup. And who cared?


With silence from the public, I didn’t know who read my column. My writing class had disbanded and its members were too young to care anyway. Fame had no difficulty eluding me. God was inspiring some other writer, and Mammon got a good laugh when I picked up my check. Office wags said that in our paper, anything other than news merely filled space not bought by advertisers. I was an interchangeable part.


Even while I wrote the column, I continued to send out my fiction to sophisticated literary magazines, having heard that editors often sought unknown but talented writers there. I wondered if anyone would be interested in an ironic article about rejections.


One Wednesday two days before I had to turn in the column I was yet to write, my elderly typewriter squeaked its last. Compulsive about deadlines, I betrayed my principles and used my husband’s computer to write a eulogy for my dead Olympia.


A week later, the newspaper called to say it’d forward a letter addressed to my attention. At long last, a signal that someone had read my column. It must be a fan letter. Someone who appreciated my flare for words. Or perhaps an offer of syndication, my reward for laboring on behalf of language even in a column for seniors. I’d probably have to get a photo for that.


For the next few days, I examined all incoming first-class mail before Arthur could touch it. When the envelope for me finally arrived, I cradled it in my hands. How elegant the heavy, textured paper. When my husband came for his allotment of mail, he took one look at me and said, “You’re flushed. Are you okay?”


“Fan mail,” I said, waving the envelope before his eyes. Every consonant and vowel in those two syllables felt delicious on my tongue, even as I was aware of unusual pressure in my chest. I let the envelope drop onto the counter and took a couple of deep breaths.


“So open the envelope,” Arthur said.


“I wonder which column inspired this,” I said, caressing the envelope. “Certainly no hot-button issue on my watch.” I laughed. “Maybe the punctuation police are challenging my serial comma.”


“But that would be good,” Arthur said. “Someone paying attention. Open the envelope.”


I stood looking at the broad-stroked printing of my name in intense black ink—so masculine. When I edged open the flap with my thumb, a tingle zipped through my arm as if the paper had been wired. Breath shivered up from my lungs and stuck in my throat. I eased out a folded sheet of thin paper—not the quality of the envelope; in fact, suspiciously like erasable bond. I fumbled at its flimsiness and pressed it flat on the table.


The message was short, a few lines. Perhaps the writer was trying to mirror my style, succinct but warm. I read out loud: “Hi. Now that you’re using the computer”—so that was the column he had read, the last one—“will you be getting rid of your old typewriter? I’ll buy it at a reasonable price. Let me know ASAP. Thanks.”


My voice slid into a whisper on the last word. The tissue-thin paper floated from my hand to the floor. So it had come to this—my search for le mot juste, and what was it worth vis à vis ASAP?


“Oh, honey,” my husband said, reaching down to retrieve the note from the floor. I knew he wanted to say something comforting.


I managed to find words myself—old Latin lying in wait. “Sic transit gloria mundi,” I said, barely suppressing a sigh.


“Aha,” Arthur said. “‘So passes away the glory of this world.’ That’s what they say when they crown the pope. Maybe to keep him humble.”


I sat down. Time compressed. I remembered those many months ago on the ladder when I took for epiphany the unexpected sunshine streaming through the transom windows. Now I knew—sometimes sunshine is just sunshine. And I could forget about le mot juste. This time I didn’t have to choose whether to chortle, chuckle, guffaw, snicker, or titter.


I simply sat there and laughed.



Anne Fox has been the longtime copyeditor of the California Writers Club (Berkeley Branch) newsletter, Write Angles, and was joint copyeditor for the Branch-sponsored chapbook publication of the WestSide Story Contest winners. She copyedits for writers of fiction and nonfiction. Her own writing of fiction and nonfiction has been published online and in other forms of print.


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