Lilly Ledbetter’s Memoir and Everyday Language

I just finished reading Lilly Ledbetter’s memoir, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay at Goodyear and Beyond. You may remember that Ms. Ledbetter discovered, after 20 years with Goodyear, she was paid considerably less than her male counterparts who were doing the same job. While a lower court found her case credible and awarded her back pay and damages, the U.S. Supreme Court said she had not filed her case in time.

The Court said the statute of limitation she had to file had to be counted from the time she received her first discriminatory paycheck – even though she didn’t know she was paid less than the other male managers for almost two decades. It’s a powerful story: she recounts disgusting tricks, cruel treatment, and harassment she endured during her career with the company – and how Congress finally passed legislation to rectify this problem (which will help other women going forward, though it did not change the outcome for Ms. Ledbetter).

What makes this book so powerful is the fact that she is truly writing in her own voice (with a little help from a co-author). She stays true to the vernacular of her culture and time, using southern and rural Alabama expressions that may be surprising to people from other areas of the country or world. She doesn’t try to sound like a college-educated person (though she had always wanted to go to college and did, in the end, become quite educated about the ways of the world and how our government works). She used her everyday language to convey exactly what happened to her. Doing so makes her more credible. While her co-author may have provided some grammatical and mechanical expertise, I have no doubt I’m hearing Ms. Ledbetter tell me the story the way she would have told her friends.

I often have students who believe they don’t have the vocabulary to be a writer. I remember feeling the same way when I was younger, having graduated from a public school in Atlanta that had not always offered a top-notch education (not that I was a great of a student back then either). The truth is that good writing has little to do with the extent of our vocabulary; in fact, our use of highfaluting words may actually turn off our readers.

This is not to say we shouldn’t strive to increase our vocabulary, but we will be better off if our search is more focused on rich, strong verbs and specific, concrete nouns. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t bore you; instead, I’ll just offer a reminder that these are the words that really help us improve our writing. They don’t have to be $2 words, just ones that offer a stronger version of what we are trying to say. They are the words that let us cut out the adverbs and adjectives that sometimes clog up our writing. So, instead of saying, “moving slowly forward,” we use, “inched forward.” Instead of “blowing wind,” we use, “a gale.” “Fruit,” becomes “kiwi” and “thinking” becomes “daydreaming.” None of these words are foreign to us; they are just more descriptive.

Lilly Ledbetter was a working class woman who was willing to endure a lot to help provide her children with the type of life and education she never had. If she sounded like an elite New Yorker, we would doubt the validity of her story. Staying true to her voice, her expressions, and her way of expressing herself make us trust her and her story. And isn’t that how all writers want our readers to feel about us and our work?

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