A couple of years ago, a friend asked me to pinpoint and describe an instance where an author used exactly the right word to convey a particular feeling.
I chose to explore one of my favorite books, The Giver, in which Lois Lowry uses one of my favorite words, yearning.
I was reminded of this little writing exercise while reading Lowry’s newest novel Son, the conclusion to The Giver and the quartet that includes Gathering Blue and Messenger (It also turns out that Lowry graduated from the University of Southern Maine, where I just completed an M.A.).
Yearning appears throughout Son, a conscious and deliberate word selection by Lowry, whose own son was killed in the crash of his fighter plane. I was originally hesitant to read “the thrilling conclusion to The Giver” because there is a beauty to not knowing what happens to Jonas and Gabe after they descend the snowy hill into the music-filled village. Post-reading, I still don’t think the story extension was necessary, but seeing Lowry cope with her personal tragedy through writing the text of Son, particularly with the use of yearning, made it a worthwhile and emotional read.
Below is the original piece I wrote. What are your examples of authors using the perfect word? I'd love to hear from you!
In the opening pages of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed novel The Giver, the main character Jonas searches for the “right word” to describe his feelings about his community’s upcoming selections, where, as a 12-year-old, he would be assigned the job to perform for the rest of his life. With the ceremony fast approaching, Jonas thinks he feels frightened, but upon recollection of another time when he felt “stomach-sinking terror,” he realizes that frightened is “too strong an adjective” for this case. Because he has waited a long time--in anticipation--for his assignment, he instead determines he feels eager. Still, though, that’s not the right word. At the pit of his stomach, he also feels a “little shudder of nervousness” every time he thinks about this next big step, and he resolves apprehensive most precisely describes his feelings.
Although precision of language is a central aspect of “Sameness” in Jonas’s community, his approach to determining word choice epitomizes the welcomed struggle every writer encounters—that moment when she pauses in the middle of writing a sentence to filter through the profusion of words whirling around her mind in search of the perfect one. Choosing the right word in the right context with the audience in mind is not only the most challenging task for a writer but also her most powerful tool, and Lois Lowry uses it most skillfully. In two particular instances in The Giver, she reveals her powerful connection with her character Jonas when she chooses the right words to evoke certain feelings.
For example, from the beginning of the story, Lowry chooses to use the word “release” to exemplify the acts of euthanasia and infanticide in Jonas’s community. When an infant helplessly takes a needle to the forehead because he’s the smaller twin, or when an elderly woman is told by the community when she will take her last breath, they are said to be “released.” This word has an undertone of liberation, relief, and letting go, leaving the reader to empathize with the released characters but also develop a curiosity about what the releasing ceremony is all about. Rather than explicitly describe these events as they occur in the story, Lowry evokes a sense of wonder in readers who then experience Jonas’s epiphany right alongside him as he grows horrifyingly aware of the reality of his community’s disturbing secrets. In choosing the word “release,” Lowry conveys Jonas’s and his community’s naiveté and blindness, which the reader can identify with and then experience Jonas’s feelings of anguish and distress upon discovery of the reality withheld from him his whole life.
Another example of Lowry’s perfect word choice comes on one of the last pages, after Jonas has escaped from the community and is trudging up a hill in the snow with the infant Gabriel, whom Jonas has saved from “release” for crying too much at night. Jonas tries to draw a memory of sunshine, and he begins to feel “tiny tongues of heat” (talk about perfect imagery!) warm his body, and “for a fleeting second” he wants to keep it for himself. This selfish moment soon passes and is followed by an “urge, a need, a passionate yearning to share the warmth with the one person left for him to love.”
There’s just something about the word yearning—its diction wholly exemplifies its meaning. As you articulate “yearn,” it extends across your tongue like you’re reaching with the word out in front of you for something lost, something missing, something loved. It evokes longing and aching, and Lowry uses it perfectly in a series of adjectives. The sequence is crafted crescendo, building up from a simple “urge” and “need” to “passionate yearning.” This cadence of words illustrates Jonas’s realization of his intense love for Gabriel, intensified by the fact that Jonas didn’t know anything about love, compassion, or yearning for the first 12 years of his life; love is completely wholly absent in Lowry’s world of “Sameness.” Lowry could have stopped with “urge” or “need” or other words like “desire” or “long,” but her choice of yearning evokes much more compelling feelings, especially as Jonas fights for his and Gabriel’s life, climbing a grueling hill on a cold, snowy night.