True story, but would you believe it — or ever see it

A few years ago, I met a woman who wanted to learn how to write.

She had moved to town, took a clerical job that didn’t satisfy her and was hoping to add skills that could help her advance.

She called some local schools but couldn’t find what she wanted. Someone sent her to me.

For part of my professional career, I was a writing coach. I was retired but still had some interest, so I agreed to meet her at the Mishawaka library. 

I told her about my five C’s of good writing – clear, concise, correct, complete, and compelling. I advised her to be aware of her audience. Use familiar words. Know your topic well enough that every word is convincing. Don’t use “some” or “many” if you can find an exact detail.

That’s my usual five-minute speech. Then I introduced my gadgets – the Flesch-Kincaid formula and the Gunning Fog Index. I use them to show the education level required to easily understand an article.

The target is to write for a  ninth-grade level. Both formulas favor short words and short sentences. I’ve helped make dozens of writers more readable simply by cutting their sentences in half and by replacing complicated jargon with simple words. 

I can make almost anyone resemble a good writer, and that’s what I told her. To be truly good, you need to find something worthwhile to write. If you don’t have a story to tell or a unique point to make, you’re just typing words.

For the next year or so, we would meet once a month. We brought copies of things we were writing as well as bits of good writing that had caught our eyes.

My contributions ran the gamut – a paragraph from Hunter S. Thompson describing Richard Nixon, and part of the Steven King novel “Hearts Over Atlantis” about teenagers sent to Vietnam. I like poetry, so I brought in “Hay for Horses” by Gary Snyder, “Autumn Begins In Martins Ferry, Ohio,” by James Wright, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot.

She brought an article about dream analysis and some profile stories from a business magazine. But best of all, she introduced me to a Wall Street Journal article about the song, “Deacon Blues,” by Steely Dan.

In that interview, songwriter Walter Becker describes the song’s main character as a “triple-L loser” and says of the song, “It’s not so much about a guy who achieves his dream but about a broken dream of a broken man living a broken life.”

We talked about this, and that’s when she told me her story.

She had graduated from an Ivy League college. Afterwards, she worked at a variety of jobs that didn’t quite fit her. Now she was 60 years old and didn’t have a past worth talking about.

Write it, I said.

A few days later, she emailed me a draft. I tinkered with it and sent it back with some ideas. She replied with a revision. I told her, without lying, that it was one of the best pieces of writing I had seen in quite a while.

The synopsis is this: Forty years after graduating, she still receives her alumni magazine. From that, she estimates she is her alma mater’s second-least successful graduate. The only person ranked below her is the classmate who has spent the past couple decades in prison.

A typical edition has stories about alums who regularly appear on national news broadcasts. These are people who developed new technologies, founded billion-dollar companies and wrote best-selling books.

She reads about women half her age who have foundations working to solve Third World hunger and to prevent the spread of disease. They literally are saving Planet Earth.

This brings her a sense of wonder, without anger, sadness or self-pity. This is the way it is.

One question nags at her: Will she feel the same when she’s in last place, after that one classmate earns his parole?

Five hundred dollars, I said. Sell this essay to a really good magazine. I’ve not read anything quite like it, but it touches something we all may feel. But there are a couple things …

“I can’t name the college,” she said.

You have to.

“I can’t use my real name.”

Why not?

“I just can’t.”

I know. It’s a bit humiliating. But this is another commandment of good writing. Details give your words credibility, even in real life. If you have a salesman trying to sell you a water softener, tell him you already have one. It’s a Culligan in your basement. That last piece of pie your spouse was craving? Your son ate it for breakfast, with ice cream.

She wouldn’t do it. Unfortunately, one of the best essays I ever edited was never printed. 

The author? I can’t tell you. The college? I’ll just say it’s a really important one.

You don’t believe me, do you?