You Ain’t Smart Unless You Sound Smart

Hookers“[B]eing trailer park trash doesn’t preclude intelligence.”

If only we lived in a world where this was not news. If only we lived in a world where this was not something a person could prove only by discarding the way of speaking they grew up with and adopting “standard” English. But we don’t live in that world. And that’s what makes Megan Foss’s essay “Love Letters” so gripping.

From the first paragraphs, one wonders, Is this real? Is she putting us on? This is really fiction, isn’t it? Even though it’s in the pages of Creative Nonfiction? Reading Foss’s essay is an experience of profound cognitive dissonance. How can someone write so artfully and evocatively and be, not a novelist or a journalist telling us the story of a heroin-addicted prostitute, but that former prostitute herself? Our culture doesn’t give us a place in our brains for realities like this. Must not be real. Must be a trick. A scam. On the next-to-last page of her essay, Foss tells us that we are not alone in having this reaction: “The gentle elderly professor of my nonfiction class told me that he’d be more comfortable if I’d present my prose as fiction. Perhaps then such a voice would be acceptable. In real life, no one would ever believe that a twenty-dollar hooker with an eighth-grade education would know what hermeneutics meant. And when I tried to tell him that he was wrong–that I had known what the word meant–he told me it didn’t matter. No one would believe it.”

Foss’s essay leads us on her journey from the street, to jail, to the English classes provided to inmates (which allowed her to nurture a passion she’d already developed by writing on yellow paper she kept in her backpack while on the street), to the realization that avoiding the penitentiary was going to require a reinvention of herself, a reinvention that “would depend on how facile I could become with words.” She had been told she would only be let out if she could convince the authorities that she could become a part of “mainstream society.” That she could find a home, get a job, and generally look after herself. How, she wondered, did people do those things? Her life had been spent sleeping in cars; she didn’t know how to begin to get an apartment. And how could she and her fellow inmates get jobs without any experience? As she poignantly notes, “we couldn’t even get most businesses to let us in when we had money. How could we ever have gotten them to pay us to be there?” But finally she realized that language was the answer: “They might not let me go in their restaurants or pay me money to do a job, but if I used the words right, there was no way to tell that I was any different from any one of them.”

By the time she tells us this, we already know how true it is. Because we’ve spent the last seven pages struggling to believe that, despite her elegant prose, she does come from the seedy background she describes. And indeed, Foss’s linguistic reinvention of herself works. Speaking and writing like a member of the middle class, she finds herself on the outside, in a community college. Then at university.

And finally, she’s confronted with a new problem. A professor named Suzanne encourages her to nurture her native voice in her writing. To leave behind the educated style she’s so carefully cultivated and plunge back into the voice she would use to tell the story to a friend on the streets.

“I couldn’t do it,” says Foss. “I’d write the word ain’t, and it would feel like I was crossing a bigger line than it felt the first time I sold my body.”

But, slowly, she begins to find the courage she needs. She begins to feel less afraid of revealing herself as “trailer park trash” when she realizes that the problem is not with her. It’s not with the “lower-class” grammar or vocabulary she’s grown up with but the prejudices with which the rest of the world receives it. And then she says something so hauntingly true that it breaks my heart each time I reread it. As she approaches the last paragraph, she says, “I realized that it isn’t the broken language and the twisted syntax of the dispossessed that bothers the world. It is the stories they render. It is the fear that beneath the ain’ts and the sentence fragments are bright beautiful minds that would condemn the world for their alienation and exclusion if they ever got the chance to be heard.”

Give one such voice a chance. Read Megan Foss’s essay “Love Letters” in Creative Nonfiction Issue 9 (1998) or where it’s reprinted in Issue 50 (Fall 2013/Winter 2014). You won’t regret it.

12 responses to “You Ain’t Smart Unless You Sound Smart”

  1. The truth that she acknowledges and used is why I always told my college English classes that we were there to give them greater power, greater choices, not to learn when to use “whom” for its own sake.

  2. I have never heard of the Creative Nonfiction publication and it looks as though I may have found some new periodical reading material, thank you 😉 I need to see if I can locate this particular issue. Your assessment of this entry is fascinating and thought-provoking.

    It reminds me that we are not always ready to accept the truth, seeing the world through our own lenses, instead of acknowledging that we don’t always know all the answers. Sometimes it’s pure stubbornness (speaking from personal experience). But, at other times it’s our deeply held beliefs that cloud the picture and innocently obscure the truth we seek.

    It is stories like this that help those that are ready to remove those lenses and see the world from a different perspective. Thank you very much for sharing such an evocative story and message. Your words always make me think, and I sincerely appreciate that 😉

    • If you follow the links at the bottom of the post, they’ll take you to Creative Nonfiction’s website. Unfortunately, they’re currently sold out of the two issues that contain this piece. But I have the feeling they may be doing a second printing of Issue 50, so keep an eye on their site. And certainly check out their new “Sustainability” issue.

  3. Sharon, this is a lovely and evocative look at class, an issue that we don’t look at often enough. I’m going to share it (and Foss’s essay) with my Multicultural Perspectives class at Antioch (I just started grad school–again). Thank you!

    • I’ve only been realizing in the last couple of years how little we talk or think about class…when it’s constantly in front of our noses. Glad you’ll be passing Foss’s essay on!

  4. Wow, I need to find a way to read that essay. I like how she proves that intelligence, like power and influence, depends on other’s perceptions. You’re only as smart as others think you are. Which is their loss, if in fact, you are smarter.

  5. Wow Sharon. I love how you empower and validate this woman and bring harsh truth to our world. Your writing is powerfully engaging and causes people to be alert and want to take a stance. I can’t wait to read this essay. Thanks for having the courage to put this and other stories out in the world.

  6. What a great piece! I enjoyed your insights into her experience and life and am excited to read her piece in CNF as well. What a validation of not only the importance of language, but recognizing that our voices all have value. Thank you for sharing this.

  7. Class is always there as a screaming reminder of the “Haves and Have Nots” to use Tyler Perry’s title. Race and gender are the second and third glaring symbols that follow suit. Upper crust Anglos are the only ones who aren’t aware of cold and cruel class society can be. Raw, real writing has an authenticity that can’t be duplicated. The crux is truly “how the world receives it.” Great piece!

  8. Beautiful and poignant insights in this essay. So true, language has its strata and a lot of people have their pre-judgments. That’s why personal stories (that are read!) can change the world, by letting the rest of us look in. I will look for ‘Love Letters’. Will also look for Ensouling Language!

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