If you wouldn't write it and sign it, don't say it.
A good cook knows how to edit. Take meatloaf. Most recipes call for some kind of filler—like breadcrumbs. The right amount guarantees a moist, savory meatloaf feast. Too much and it's dry, tasteless, stick-in-your-mouth lump.
A good writer knows how to edit. Take Mark Twain. In his short story, "Advice to Little Girls," he wrote, "Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to 'sass' old people unless they 'sass' you first."
Now that's succinct.
He could have written: If you're a good little girl, you should be respectful, obsequious, and well-behaved when in the presence of anyone older than you are, like your parents, grandparents, and school teachers, and not only that, if you're a good little girl, you should never say nasty things to older people, like saying 'you're a poopy-face,' to a teacher or saying 'you have ugly brown moles on your neck' to your grandmother, even if she has ugly brown moles on her neck; however, if one of these older people calls you a poopy-face first, well, then, you are entitled to call him or her a poopy-face right back.
But he didn't.
A good landscape architect knows how to edit. Take the Chicago Botanic Gardens. Their designers have created acres of floral magnificence. Walled English gardens, ivy-covered fountains, lily ponds, flowering perennials. A blooming wonderland.
Understated in its overabundance.
And a good conversationalist knows how to edit. Take me. I pride myself on knowing how to listen and respond—how to engage in conversation with sensitivity, diplomacy, and confidence. I say all the right things at the right time. I listen for cues and follow the path of my speaking partner, keeping my ego at bay.
I'm honest, yet prudent. Curious, yet discrete. Interested, yet unassuming. I laugh, scowl, sigh, grin, cringe, smirk, weep, and wince—with accompanying gestures—at the appropriate times, exhibiting empathy, commitment, and compassion.
High enthusiasm. Low maintenance.
Now that's darned good conversational editing.
Too bad it's not always the case.
A few years ago at the Theatre of Western Springs, in Anne Chislett's production of "Quiet in the Land," I played a Southern Ontario Amish wife and mother who wanted a telephone. My role called for a Farm and Ranch dialect—the kind of Midwestern accent with thin vowels, clipped word endings, and a touch of nasal twang. Country speak. Not sophisticated. Some people call it hillbilly. I had trouble capturing the accent. My mouth wouldn't cooperate—the words refused to take on the back-woods tone the director wanted. I didn't know anyone with the accent. Even an instructional CD didn't help. Try as I might, I couldn't replicate the Farm and Ranch dialect.
Until I went to a wedding. There, across the round table laden with roses, candles, silver, champagne, water carafes, and party favors, sat a lovely lady who spoke softly to those near her throughout the soup and salad courses. My husband, who officiated at the wedding, and I spoke softly to those near us. Finally, feeling unfriendly and slightly uncomfortable that we hadn't introduced ourselves, I looked directly into the eyes of the lovely lady and said, "We haven't met. I'm Ellie Searl. This is my husband Ed."
The lovely lady smiled and said, "Oh! So glayd t' meecha. Wadda be-udaful weddin', ya did der, Revrin Ed."
"That's it!" I shouted. "That's it!" I pointed at her.
"Wa's et?" She pulled her head back.
"Your accent. Midwest Farm and Ranch. You've got it!" Excitement overtook common sense. "It's perfect. I'm supposed to talk just like you in an Amish play. It's about a bunch of farmers."
"What's the matter with you?" Ed whispered. "You fall into a stupid pit or something?"
There was no going back. I couldn't apologize; it wasn't an accident.
The lovely lady got up and left.
The others at the table resumed their meals, and soon the clicking of knives and forks drowned the hushed voices of recrimination.
I don't remember much about the main course.
It might have been an unedited meatloaf.
Because I do remember a dry, tasteless, stick-in-my-mouth lump.
EVS – 06/11