In 1890, a Congregational minister in Coventry, England was, in his own words, “requested by a number of young men to address them upon the art of composition and effective public speech.” Rather than offer them only his own advice, Reverend George Bainton wrote to celebrated authors around the world to ask what advice they might offer. Many responded, and he published their collective responses in a volume called The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners.
Of the reminiscences, methods, and advice therein, Mark Twain’s has had the longest afterlife. Ever honest, Twain first confessed to Bainton that “I am not sure that I have methods in composition.” He supposed he did, having already written the novels which remain famous even a century later, but in trying to detail his literary methods, Twain said they became “like the fragments of glass when you look at the wrong end of a kaleidoscope.”
Being struck by lightning is the almost-right, but not right way of describing a rare occurrence. It happens more than we think, and when it happens, people die more often than we realize.
If this was all that Twain had said, then the exchange would have been forgotten, but near the end of his long and careful reply, he observed that a writer, as she practices and perfects, will come to learn “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lighting.”
There are, of course, real differences between the two. The scale—an insect that can fit on your fingernail and an explosion of electrical discharge that can fill the horizon—but also the frequency—there are 2,000 species of lightning bugs, and lightning strikes more then one billion times a year. There are, however, profound similarities, if only, or most obviously this time of year, that they are both summer delights.
The other night, on the drive home, I watched lightning dance, a verb that is the only right word for the movement of visible electricity, and then, when I sat down at my dining room table to write, I watched fireflies flicker, an almost-right word for what these insects do, for 20 or 30 minutes through the window.
It’s June, so both the summer storms and the seasonal species have arrived. There is not only this year’s delight, but the remembrance of summers past: Remembering how we were warned not to let our umbrellas be the tallest thing in a storm, regretting the years we smeared the bioluminescence of the bugs on our fingers like rings, or kept them in mason jars for lights through the night, thinking of how we traced the veins on our grandmother’s legs like lightning strikes.
I was thinking of all this, the differences between lightning and lightning bugs, the precision of language, my memories of childhood, because last week I happened upon Jennifer Baichwal’s film Act of God. The documentary is a few years old, but it’s an extraordinary look at lightning. Novelist Paul Auster describes being caught in a storm as a teenager and watching a boy die only a few inches away. A French storm chaser and photographer explains his obsession with lightning during a tour of a lightning museum. Five mothers in Mexico who lost their children in the same lightning strike hold a vigil on the anniversary of their deaths.
Baichwal’s film not only documents these experiences of lightning life and death, but interrogates them: Asking the survivors and witnesses how they understand what happened to them and the ones they love, considering the cultural ceremonies and religious beliefs that influence our interactions with the weather, and suggesting how patterns of lightning mirror electrical patterns in our brains and bodies and societies.
Being struck by lightning may be one of the very linguistic inaccuracies against which Mark Twain warned us. It’s revelatory, but not rare: Last year, one of the least fatal on record, still saw 23 people in the United States die from lightning strikes; since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began recording weather-related deaths in 1940, lightning has killed more people than hurricanes. Four people have already died this year, and deaths typically peak in July: not only because of weather patterns, but because outdoor activity increases during the summer months. In a detailed report on the seven years between 2006 and 2012, NOAA found that 82 percent of the fatalities were male, and that, of the 238 people who died during that period, 26 had been fishing, 15 had been camping, 14 were boating, and 11 were on the beach. Weekends had more deaths than weekdays, and 70 percent of lightning deaths occurred in June, July, or August.
Being struck by lightning, then, is the almost-right, but not right way of describing a rare occurrence. It happens more than we think, and when it happens, people die more often than we realize. That is one of the most striking aspects of Baichwal’s film: So much of what survivors wrestle with is having experienced what we casually consider the impossible. Those who witness it are even more troubled by what they saw, having witnessed the improbable not only occur but leave a body as a proof. Act of God is a sublime film: not only because the style is strange, but because its beauty is indeed terrifying. What you thought you knew about the thing is almost right, but not right: The difference between lightning bugs and lightning.