On Writing: Mrs. Kowalski Is Elusively Stationary

But language is a treacherous thing, a most unsure vehicle, and it can seldom arrange descriptive words in such a way that
they will not inflate the facts…

Mark Twain, Following The Equator

Words can do so much. They can show us things and educate us. They can lead us to feel joy or sorrow. Words pass legends between generations.

Mark Twain headstone in Woodlawn Cemetery.

This picture works for this post. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When we put them on paper, they can dance on the page like the most exquisite ballerina. They can also stumble off the edge of the page like a bumbling drunk.

Words can take us places, or not. This is a tale of how they can fail to get us where they’re intended to send us.

A Journey Starts With A Word

The family of a young man who was taken too soon came to town to visit where he was buried. Because we miss him too, several of us who worked with the young man volunteered to escort his family on their sad journey.

The task of leading the procession of cars to the cemetery fell to me. I am familiar with the cemetery’s location. Getting to the gates of the graveyard was not a problem. Moving beyond the gates to the burial site was a bit more of an issue.

It pains me to admit it, but I have not returned to the site where this gentleman was laid to rest since the afternoon we brought him there. It has been five years. The burial ground involved in this tale is a vast grove of granite, greenery and grief. The chances of me guiding this expedition unerringly to the marker commemorating the life of our lost one were not good.

Fortunately, my work partner had the answer to my dilemma. He had someone go out and scout the site for us and write directions. It seemed a masterful stroke.

…And That Word Is Disaster

The day came and the family arrived for their visit. I led the group away from our office. I had a wreath and a printed copy of the directions in the car with me.

A short distance from the cemetery, I realized that two monumental errors had been committed. I had not really looked at the directions I’d been given until that moment. I’m responsible for that mistake. If I’d read it in advance, I could have identified the other error in the planning of the expedition – that the person sent to write the directions was not as competent with words as he believed himself to be.

The directions I held in my hand were simultaneously accurate and useless. I’ll reproduce them here for your judgement. Save the names and latitude and longitude coordinates, this is precisely (including grammatical errors) what I had in hand:

Find the statues of Jesus with two disciples “Christ washing the disciples feet”. from the road face toward the AM sun and drive toward LL (-80:56:53.5686, 35:18:16.1277), passing twin cedars on the right side of the road find the Smith stone marker. Roll forward slowly to the Kowalski stone marker. Face this stone marker from the road side it is 68 paces to a polished black stone marker with John’s name etched in. you will face southeast to read the name.

Absolute Truth

I hope you can imagine the horror and confusion I felt when I read that.

I was not going to be able to use those directions to go from the gate to the grave site. Once inside the cemetery gates, I knew the road divided at least four ways and each divided again. If this had occurred in the pre-mobile phone era, I would have come to some measure of shame in front of the family. Technology and calling the right person got us to the right place.

Looking back from the graveside, I realized that the written directions were both absolutely true and absolutely useless.

  • There was a statue of Jesus. There were quite a few of them. He is a popular guy in the bone yards.
  • The morning sun rises in the east. This fact is not helpful on a cloudy day at 4:30 p.m..
  • Looking back, I could pick out the twin cedars I couldn’t spot from a moving car.
  • Mr. Smith and Mrs. Kowalski, God bless them, they were right where their kin had left them.
  • Our dearly departed friend was right where we left him too. He did seem to be about 68 paces from Mrs. Kowalski.

The written directions were that unique combination of correct and meaningless that only the truth can produce. They embodied what Twain wrote for us so many years ago. Language is an unsure vehicle. In this case, language and truth produced only confusion.

Truth And Accuracy Are Friends, But They Aren’t The Same

Anti-Stratfordian Mark Twain, wrote

Mark Twain, in better times. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some write with the knowledge of the importance and power of words. Others see writing as a task. Writing badly is a choice. Bad writing doesn’t become an acceptable choice when we do it as part of a task.

When we write, we take on an obligation to our reader. We commit to taking them where we’re going. Reading what we write from the perspective of the reader is critical. If we don’t adapt our words based on that reading we’ll never take that reader past the gates.

Mrs. Kowalski isn’t a moving target, but she’s hard to hit. She’s harder to hit if you don’t respect words and perspective.

Often, the surest way to convey misinformation is to tell the strict truth.

Mark Twain, Following The Equator


15 Comments on “On Writing: Mrs. Kowalski Is Elusively Stationary”

  1. Your words always make for an entertaining journey.

    The fellow who wrote the directions. His name wasn’t Donner by any chance, was it?

  2. Linda Sand says:

    I learned very early in life to use accuracy to tell untruths. Choosing which words to use can take you amazing places.

  3. Debbie says:

    With those directions, I’m surprised you were able to find the grave you were seeking! Bet you won’t ever again make that mistake!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Not that this has anything to do with your column, but if you are ever in Elmira, NY, Mark Twain’s grave is the one covered with cigars. People like to leave them.

  5. dufmanno says:

    Argh matey. Sixty paces past the bones of fifty sea farin’ salty dogs when the sun meets the horizon will lead you to the X that marks the spot.
    Too bad I wasn’t available to walk you through this. My inability to use words clearly and concisely would have really paid off.

  6. Lenore Diane says:

    Your words were used wonderfully well in this post, Oma. What you wrote is worth reading again and again, as the message is one that bears repeating.

    I really like “words pass legends between generations.”

  7. My Odd Family says:

    I spend a lot of time in cemeteries. I visit them the way some people visit parks. However, I’m pretty sure I could never give anyone directions to a gravesite. Funny thing about cemeteries is they change based on the season, the weather, bows and fake wreaths can obscure headstones, and sometimes your own memories cloud your path.
    Good directions can be found from the folks at cemetery office who will often print them out for you,

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