I was born at home in a house surrounded by cotton fields. A few miles to the east and we would would have been in an oil field. A few miles west and we would have been on land good for nothing but running cows and chasing jackrabbits. My grandfather had been tricked into buying the only place in twenty miles that would grow cotton.
It was in the cotton field that I first learned the power of the English language. Those who chopped cotton with a hoe were not called hoers. As my mother explained to me with a switch. It occurred to me that if the wrong word like hoer had the power to move my mother to such action, just think what using the right word like hoe hand could accomplish.
That was when I first got the notion of being a writer. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We didn’t go in much for writing at the country school I attended. We studied penmanship. But we knew what a writer was. A writer was somebody who was dead. And if he was any good he had been dead a long time. If he was real good, people killed him. They killed him with hemlock. Hemlock was the Greek word for Freshman Composition.
The country school I attended was closed, and we were bused to Chillicothe. Chillicothe, Texas is small. Chillicothe is so small there’s only one Baptist Church. Chillicothe is so small you have to go to Quanah to have a coincidence. For a good coincidence, you have to go to Vernon. Chillicothe was fairly bursting with truth and beauty, and my teacher encouraged me to write something that had an epiphany. For an epiphany, you had to go all the way to Wichita Falls.
Real writers wrote about such things as I had never heard of. Damsels. Splendor falling on castle walls. For splendor, we had to go to the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show. Since I wasn’t overly familiar with damsels and splendor, I tried reading what real writers wrote about rural life. “Dear child of nature, let them rail. There is a nest in a green vale.” Which was pretty mystifying to me. Didn’t writers get chiggers like everybody else?
It looked like for truth and beauty you had to cross Red River. All I knew about was a little place called Chillicothe. And it wasn’t even the Chillicothe that was on the map. Truth in that mythical place was neither comic nor tragic, neither big nor eternal. And it was revealed through the lives of common folk who belched and fornicated, and knew moments of courage, and saw beauty in their meager lives. But I could not write about the people I knew without using the vocabulary they knew. My father did not believe a cowboy said “golly bum” when a horse ran him through a bob wire fence.
Words are not casual things. They are powerful. Even explosive. Words can start wars, or families. Words can wound, they can shock and offend. Words can also heal, and explain, and give hope and understanding. Words have an intrinsic worth, and there is pride and delight in using the right word. Anyone who chops cotton with an axe is a hoer.
(From “Truth and Beauty”)