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Nuggets from Notables

Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 1:06 AM

Words of advice from professionals.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Rather than just repeating nuggets of advice given you previously in words of my own devising, permit me to repeat them in the words of others, notable others, so that they might serve to remind you of ways you can help the process of writing (for those who depend on you to edit them or for yourself, when you switch into writing mode).

Read Aloud

For instance: I've urged you time and again to read copy aloud. Well, now comes word that best-selling author David Sedaris favors such action for himself. Renowned as he is, however, he's able to go a distance beyond just reading material aloud in the privacy of his office. He tests his material by reading it to live audiences, a luxury most of us don't have. Folks flock to hear him; they even pay admission to hear him. Wonder of wonders: an editing session becomes performance; re-evaluation turns into theater.

An audience, he says, provides a real test, one he likes to use, if possible, even before he sends copy to his editor. "There's no substitute for a live audience," he says. "I used to hate it when a book came out or a story was published and I would be like 'Damn, how did I not catch that?' But you pretty much always catch it when you're reading out loud."

Sedaris strives to mark up his copy as he reads, this to help him remember later what needs fixing: repeated words or words that sound too much alike or a passage "that sounds a little too obvious." And when he starts to hear coughs and seat-shifting, he draws a skull in the margin. A skull means that verbal moment requires extra careful reconsideration.

All well and good for David Sedaris, but like me, you're not likely to gather up a live audience. Nevertheless, you can take a step beyond just reading out loud; I think I've mentioned this somewhere along the way. You can tape record your out-loud reading, then play it back, making you a one-person audience listening to yourself. And as you listen, you can applaud what you like and alter what you don't. It works.

Interview, Observation, and Participation

As one would expect from title and concept, there's much of an inspirational nature in A Syllable of Water, Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art, a collection edited by Emilie Griffin for Paraclete Press in Brewster, Massachusetts. But one can find harder-edged, super-practical counsel, too, in its 220 pages.

For instance, Philip Yancey, longtime writer for Christianity Today and author of 20 books, has contributed an essay on journalism titled "The Literature of Fact." Here's a sampling of what he tell us:

"Good journalism, whether thematic or based on interviews, tells a story. As novelist and essayist Reynolds Price says, 'The need to tell and hear stories is the second most important need after food. People are going to tell stories.' And participatory journalism affords me a chance to live a story before I tell it."

Early in his career, says Yancey, he "met a young man named Peter Jenkins at a writers' conference as he was working on the book A Walk Across America. As he recounted some of his adventures on a long walk across the country, he said, 'I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me. They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, "So, Peter, what's it like to walk across America?" I'd like a reporter to walk with me for a while!'"

Yancey agreed to do just that. "For several days, Peter and I hiked together, swatted fire ants, bargained with farmers for watermelon, chased snakes (and were chased by them), and endured the abuse of cruising Texas teenagers who had nothing better to do than harass the outsiders setting up tents in their town. I collected far more material in those days than I could ever include in an article."

I've addressed this matter with you. Interviewing is not always the best approach to gathering information. Observation and participation often can play a more significant part in a writer's effort to create a potent, attention-grabbing article.

"Shut Up and Write"

Sit. Walk. Write. Those three words sum up the wisdoms of author/teacher/sage Natalie Goldberg, as developed across 224 pages in The True Secret of Writing, Connecting Life with Language (Atria Books). One gets sucked in by her lush and evocative use of language, by her ranging mind as she obliquely instructs us through recapitulation of life experiences, long-term retreats with adoring students, by her application of Zen.

Not all of you may be taken in by her unhurried teaching method in this particular volume; I'm not always with her 100 percent. But she has a lot to say if you're patient enough to walk along with her through ruminations and retraced walks and talks.

Toward the end, she says: "I tell my students, Shut up and write. These four words are all you need, but to realize them is not so easy. The phrase has the terseness of Zen -- pithy, cutting though, to the point. But we have to fall through many layers of human life to directly meet its prescription. We have to know the dignity of language, the dimensions of war and aggression, then patience, the slow recording of detail, desire, anguish, hope, then letting go, silence and speech, imperturbability, resolve, then flummoxing, losing it all, thinking we can escape. We go through the whole gamut, the extremes, till we lower ourselves into the center -- quiet, looking harmless, barely moving, but ferocious inside, determined, touching down on delight and candor, pouring it onto the page."

Well, I guess so. Writing is a complex matter. But in the end, we have to tell our writers and ourselves: "Shut up and write."

Writer's Block

That connects to another issue I've dwelled on from time to time: writer's block. I've never worried much about writer's block because, as a practicing journalist, I've never allowed myself to let it take hold and, thereby, become its victim. Granted, I often wait until the last moment to write, finding excuses to delay the task. When, however, I know the last moment has arrived, discipline takes over and I "shut up and write."

If you have the problem or know someone who has, take advice from none less than John McPhee. In a piece titled "Draft No. 4" for The New Yorker, McPhee tells a muted writer: "You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair.... What do you do?

"You write, 'Dear Mother.' And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a 55-inch waist and a neck more than 30 inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests 14 hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the 'Dear Mother' and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear."

I say no more.

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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