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Your Blood, Sweat And Tears

Posted on Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 10:16 AM

If you wish your reader to remember - it takes F-L-E-S-H.

By Peter P. Jacobi

In a recent speech before a conference of writers, I dealt with responsibilities faced by those who would be serious about their profession.

Here are major points I included, a portion of them this month, the rest next.

The recently-named Poet Laureate of the United States, W.S. Merwin, ends a poem with these words: "I have only what I remember."

"I have only what I remember."

There's your challenge as writer: to cause your reader to remember. It's as simple as that and as perplexingly, confoundedly difficult.

Most of you realize by now that inspiration rarely comes as a thunderbolt, that it tends to come slowly, quietly, oft-times hesitantly. The process of writing amounts to a struggle. It is an illusion -- as John Kenneth Galbraith once put it -- "that on some golden mornings, [writers] are touched by the wand, are on intimate terms with poetry and cosmic truth." He warned us not to wait for such moments. They're not likely to arrive.

To speak in triplets: writing demands blood, sweat, and tears. It wrestles you morning, noon, and night. And it takes -- if, indeed, you wish your reader to remember -- flesh, mind, and spirit.

Let's take each word -- flesh, mind, spirit -- and for each letter in it put forth another word chosen to provide you with a lesson to remember so that, in the end, your reader will remember.


"F" stands for FOCUS

We're back into basic territory now, but this is where writers so often get off track. Before you set a word to paper, determine what it is you want to do and how and for whom. Translate a subject into an idea. Determine content needed and an approach that's appropriate. Determine limits of coverage and slant. Determine where you want to start and where to wind it up.

Focus is a critically important issue. What are you trying to write and for whom and in what manner? Is it entertainment you're after and/or education, literary value, uplift, or the arousal of some other sort of emotion?

"L" is for LANGUAGE

Oh, my, but there's a howdy-do!

Mark Twain touched on the difficulty: "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter. It's the difference between the lighting bug and the lightning."

Gustave Flaubert asked of us: "When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway, a porter smoking a pipe, or a cab stand, show me that grocer and that porter…in such a way that I could never mistake them for any other grocer or porter, and by a single word give me to understand wherein the cab horse differs from fifty others before or behind it."

You can make the search agonizing and, granted, it often is. But there can be the joy of adventure in the process of determining language. Be joyful, while also being diligent and careful.

"E" I've reserved for EMPHASIS

That means determining what in your story you highlight, accentuate, give priority, stress, apply weight to, offer more space, decide requires telescoping. What elements deserve heightened and/or broadened attention, so to make clear to the reader that those elements are what matter and need be paid attention to? In what does the essence of your idea throb? How can you best cast the light on what will be central to your written project?

Emphasis, of course, begets de-emphasis, give and take, ebb and flow, playing down as well as up, knowing what can be slimmed informationally, even shunned, if it's tangential or beside the point - thereby leaving sufficient space for what counts, thereby creating a purposeful narrative or exposition.

Know also what can be left out altogether, cast away, lest you come to hide the prize from your reader: that which you really want him or her to remember.

"S" stands for SUBSTANCE

The meat, the potatoes and pastas, the greens, the fruits, the mass that matters, the informational assets in your project -- verification for the reader that you've cared enough to give your very best, proof you understand that regardless of how fluently and floridly and fabulously you write, the how of that talent turns insufficient for reader satisfaction if the what is insufficient. Facts must go with fancy.

"'The cat sat on the mat' is not the beginning of a story," advised John Le Carre. "'The cat sat on the dog's mat' is."

It is all in the details. Substance rules. Specificity rules. Generalities defeat your hardest, sincerest efforts. Abstraction disappoints.

And from whence comes specificity? Research, observation, verbal acuity, and thoughtful processing of gathered material. Hey, how can I - through my copy - make my reader see or hear or feel or in some way experience what I mean my reader to?

Heed the sage James Kilpatrick: "The first secret of good writing: We must look intently, and hear intently, and taste intently.... We must look at everything very hard. Is it the task at hand to describe a snowfall? Very well. We begin by observing that the snow is white. Is it as white as bond paper? White as whipped cream? Is the snow daisy white, or egg-white white, or whitewash white? Let us look very hard. We will see that snow comes in different textures. The light snow that looks like powdered sugar is not the heavy snow that clings like wet cotton. When we write matter-of-factly that 'Last night it snowed and this morning the fields were white,' we have not looked intently. Out of this intensity of observation we derive two important gains. We learn to write precisely, and we fill our storehouse with the images that one day we will fashion into similes and metaphors."


That results from the right material chosen for the right idea and for the right reason and for the right audience. Honesty in the use of language versus airs. Honesty in approach to subject, being respectful of it, serving it rather than cow-towing to the dictates of common preferences or market pressures.

To be honest in your writing means being true to yourself, your personality, your belief system, to what you think the material and topic require. I don't know what else to say on this, except that you will not feel good about yourself or your writing if you're not faithful to your principles.

So, we finish with FLESH, ours given, ours taken.

Next issue: words suggested by MIND and SPIRIT. In the meantime, think about what those words might be.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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