by Ruth Minshull
The professor had been a writer and newspaper editor for more than 30 years. I met him when I took a night course in creative writing. He was the best instructor I’d ever known.
Several years later, when I wrote my first book, I looked him up and asked him to edit it. He did, to my complete satisfaction.
A few years after that I called upon him again to edit my second book. When he finished we met and went through the manuscript page by page. He explained his corrections and suggestions. Now and then he thought I needed an example. Other times he believed I had said too much on a subject and needed to trim.
His advice was so exacting that I never disagreed with him. Most of the time I thought, “Of course, why didn’t I see that?”
His criticism was never unkind, but his own integrity to the craft kept him from indulging in superficial flattery.
For this reason, I was deeply thrilled when we came to a particular page in the book. “This section” he said, tapping the page with his pencil, “this section is almost great.”
I thanked him and we went on, but I have never forgotten his words. They are stored away in my “Feel-Good-Memories” chest.
Some might wonder why the words “almost great” were so satisfying to me. For one thing I felt that he was sincere because he was that kind of a person. And the qualifying “almost” gave the compliment more meaning.
The word “great” itself has been trivialized into an all-purpose word we use when we can’t think of anything else to say. An unidentifiable stew is served to us and we might gush, “This is great, really unusual.” (“My grandpa used something like this for hog swill!”)
We might use it to cover the embarrassment of being the target of a surprise party we never wanted. “This is great, guys. Wow! You sure surprised me.” (“I;m gonna kill you for this.“)
We might employ it to get over the hump to some level of sincerity when a friend shows us an awful painting he did. “Hey, that’s great. I didn’t know you were into art.” (Translation: “Gee, that’ll scare all of the rats out of the neighborhood.”)
Young people bandy the word about (along with “awesome”) in describing a new rock star, a fright-wig haircut, a pizza, a new hand-held, thumb-numbing gizmo, a pulsating day-glow T-shirt.
Older folks might exclaim, “It’s great” about everything from a tuna casserole to an organ rendition of “Rock of Ages.”
“Almost great” on the other hand, indicates that the words were carefully chosen. They were thoughtful and sincere—and freely given.
One “almost great” from the professor was worth more to me than a thousand “greats” from anyone else.
It still is.
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©2010 by Ruth Minshull