I recently received this message from Sally Dunkerly in Australia:
Dear Dr Goodword,
My name is Sally, I’m fifteen years old and clearly not the best with the English language. However, I have recently finished reading your incredible book, The Hundred most Beautiful Words in English and fell in love with it right from ailurophile. I loved the words you put in there, and the examples you included of how to use the words, sounded so nice that now I can’t wait to read more of your books!
I also want to tell you my favourite word. It’s not very pretty or interesting and we use it all the time without thinking about it. My favourite word is if, I just love it because it hints at a possibility, some sort of unknown and we might have to make a choice. ‘If the house burns down’ or ‘If i win the lottery’, ‘if he’s lying to me’—it is just one of those words that is so commonly used that people don’t understand it’s mysterious beauty. It’s such a dainty word, additionally, it doesn’t contain a single ugly sound, maybe because it only has one syllable, but it’s still beautiful to me!
I apologise because this won’t be the most exciting thing you read today, and that my fifteen-year-old English and typical Australian laziness with my words may annoy you. I know it’s far-fetched, but I’m aspiring to be a novelist some day, and the beautiful words you have shown me in your book are really going to add life to the pages I’ve written so far, so thank you for helping me with my biggest dream.
As a former teacher, I love to receive letters like this. I have never had any desire to influence people; I prefer affecting them. This note seems to indicate I’ve done that in Australia. My response was this:
Your letter was exactly what I love to receive. I was a teacher for 36 years and, as you might know, teachers do not work for money, but moments like the one you gave me. As I usually say to someone who offers gratitude for my work: “All appreciation is appreciated.”
You have a good sense of words. That’s good if you plan to be a poet, but if you plan to be a novelist, you will need to be a good story teller. There is a movie you should see: Wonder Boys (2001) with Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas. They do an imagination exercise in which they visit restaurants and bars, select someone there, and make up a story about him or her based on how they are dressed and how they comport themselves.
There is another movie with an imagination exercise, called The Magic of Belle Isle with Morgan Freeman (2012). He takes an aspiring novelist onto an empty street and asks, “What don’t you see?” She, of course, says, “Nothing,” immediately, but by the end of the film, she can see things that are not there.
I never taught creative writing and was never a novelist. (As expectable I was a passable poet, who published a poem in the last issue of the New York Times that carried poems back in July 1971. I’ve often wondered what my role was in replacing the poetry in the Times with a paid ad from Mobil Oil. I was never a good story-teller. I hope these two films help you; you can get them from Netflix.
Good luck, and thank you again for your lovely letter.
I ran if January 6, 2014.