Le Mot Juste

I love that the phrase some English speakers use to refer to the perfectly chosen English word turns out to be French. As writers, le mot juste, the exactly right word, might seem like the peak towards which every writer is climbing, but I have come to believe that this concept of a perfect word or phrase is actually a kind of will-o-the-wisp that will always leave you disappointed with either your command of the language or your fellow human beings.

I think now of my older sister, who received straight A’s at the University of Rhode Island. No, strike that—straight A’s and one B. She got A’s in Advanced French and Calculus and Psychology, but she got a B in Creative Writing. “There are no right answers!” she complained to me years after the fact.

True enough, which is why I always preferred it to all other disciplines. Yet le mot juste remains. And why shouldn’t it? Have we not all found ourselves reading (or, yes, writing) along and come across that exactly—right—phrase? How satisfying! To have some gangly octopus of an idea or image reduced into one manageable bite. Such is the craft of writing, after all: to simplify and reveal.

But le mot juste isn’t about what you like, is it? It isn’t what you find perfect. Le mot juste IS perfect. Period. It’s like some great math problem that has been solved. Only you know even as you read this that somewhere there is some apostate who will find what you call perfect imperfect, who will shrug and say those damning indifferent words, “It just doesn’t work for me.”

Oh, the despair. Every word is in the end just another damn word, and life is just one endless disagreement. Mathematicians agree on 12 X 12, physicists agree on gravity—why can’t we agree on something? Why can’t we agree there is at least one perfect phrase or word? Maybe Shakespeare, or Dickenson, or Eliot . . .?

Tempting as it is to wish it so, I say thank God my sister was right. Thank God there are no right answers, no mot justes, only the roiling, uncertain, imperfect, argumentative sea of preference. Writing has never been and can never be a search for that word, that phrase, that story even that everyone will love, for that would mean the end of personal preference, the end of choice. You and you alone choose each word, by yourself, alone, one by one—and even if you think you’re choosing these words because women ages 32 to 55 will like them, you don’t know, you never will know until women ages 32 to 55 tell if they do, and by then it will be too late. In the end, no matter what genre you choose, no matter to whom that genre is supposed to appeal, you are writing for one person and one person only: yourself. It isn’t physically possible to do otherwise, unless you find a way to poll all of humanity on every word ahead of time, and then good luck getting agreement.

And this is all to the good. Because you weren’t put onto the planet to please anyone but yourself. No one has lived what you have lived or seen what you have seen or loved what you have loved. You are absolutely unique in the history of the universe. And if you don’t do what pleases you, if you don’t choose what words you find perfect, then the world will be one voice poorer. You are here to add to the chorus of humanity, and the only way to do so is to offer what you and you alone know to be true.

So sing it out. And forget le most juste. All anyone ever meant when they found that right word, when they shared that right word, is the same thing anyone ever means when they share anything: I. Love. This.

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