A Way With Words

photo by author

Karl was a writer who took his craft very seriously. He was good at it.

One day he wrote a perfect sentence and it stopped him cold. This had never happened to him before. He had been writing for a long time but this was really something.

He looked at it and was filled with awe. It was exquisite. It accomplished its purpose… perfectly. It was as long as it needed to be. No clutter. The punctuation was balanced and tasteful. It said everything he meant to say. Succeeding sentences would add words but not meaning.

Karl felt liberated. He had said it all. On re-reading it he felt he might never need write again. It was that perfect.

Then the thought welled up, he was trapped by this perfection. He felt restricted. The freedom he felt moments ago, now confined him. Nothing looked different but this perfect sentence had changed everything.

Karl always saw writing as a sculptor approaches a block of stone; chiseling each sentence, stroke by stroke, shaping the story. Now the jewel was cut and polished. This perfect sentence stole Karl’s words.

Karl threw his pen across the room. He crumpled the paper holding his perfect sentence and threw it into the waste basket. It was a perfect throw.

He went out for a drink. Karl needed distance from this bizarre phenomenon. This absurdity of perfection. His apartment was stuffy, like fifty people populated it, breathing his air.

He sat at the bar and drank in silence. But words streamed through his mind. They were not perfect words though. And they weren’t perfect sentences. He finished his drink and left, telling himself the noisy bar was distracting. But the words followed.

Karl sat at his typewriter. The words stopped.

He told himself the sentence was not so perfect. He could go on. No words came.

Then Karl thought he had imagined it all. It wasn’t even his sentence. It wasn’t important. Just ink on paper. A meaningless scribble.

He retrieved the paper from the basket and smoothed it on his desk. The sentence was undoubtedly written in his handwriting. They were his words. He could not deny his creation.

He couldn’t explain it either. It truly was perfect in every way. It was unambiguous but evocative, and precisely expressed his meaning. The sentence was suggestive and musical. Witty but not precious. Rhythmic, colorful and terse. Clear.

Karl assured himself his ego was not running away. It was beyond him how he wrote it. He didn’t know he had such a good sentence in him. Two? Impossible.

The more he studied it, the more he felt unworthy of its greatness. How could he write another so well? He felt helpless before this Alpha sentence. All sentences flow from this. Having written it, no more were needed.

He feared his future writing would only be derivative. Empty. Flaccid.

Karl always devoted himself to using words as beautifully and effectively as possible. Having reached this pinnacle, was his life now but a long slog down the nether slope? Would he spend his declining years like some old fool on a bench, mumbling about his past greatness? His damned perfect sentence?

Mediocrity stared at him.

He berated himself for spending his life chasing empty words. Waves on a beach.

After all, words are only vague shadows of fleeting abstractions; fossilized metaphors binding us to archaic objects and deeds, laden with repetition, a gloss of emotion and memorializing some anonymous utterance. Words. Why grope for meaning sifting through shards of the past?

He sat in silence and watched shadows grow.

Karl lurched to his feet and charged out of his room. The door slammed behind him and he staggered into the street. He didn’t know where to go. He needed to move.

He passed people and yelled greetings. He could only gesture, grunt and shout. No one returned his wild gaze but furtively glanced as he passed. A policeman eyed him.

Karl paid no mind. He walked too quickly to notice. He didn’t know where he was going but couldn’t wait to get there. He raged toward the river.

Then Karl stopped. Passing under a stone bridge he noticed a shoeless man sitting in the gloom. Karl had thought he was walking past discarded rags. The beggar moved his feet when Karl passed. He looked as if he had not moved in days.

The man’s sign caught his eye. Scrawled on tattered cardboard, it read, “Please help.”

Karl emptied his pockets and offered what he had to the man who took it meekly. Karl fell to his knees and weeping, he embraced the poor soul.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you.” Karl said.