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Writing Can Be Lonely

Posted on Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 1:22 PM

Remember that reading isn't.

By Peter P. Jacobi

When I teach writing, whether to collegians in a class or to pros and would-be pros in workshops, I think about others who write. Lecturing on the craft and faced with their questions and/or manuscripts, I am reminded of their and my, our, struggles to do what we do better. I am reminded that I am one among many.

When I write, I tend to forget all that. I become so immersed in the process that the world external to my responsibilities of the moment fades away. I become the loner, striving to overcome limitations of time and energy, striving to make the most of the materials I've gathered and to tame the language so that it will work for and with me.

Of course, when I read -- and I read as a writer -- I regain a societal foothold, recognizing that I'm pouring through and analyzing and criticizing and enjoying the results of another writer's battle for verbal dominance. That way, I remember I'm part of a sisterhood and brotherhood.

Remembering that I belong has been intensified by a couple of books recently published and recently savored: Why We Write, 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (Plume Books), edited by Meredith Maran, and Good Prose, The Art of Nonfiction (Random House), by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd. Both also are filled with lessons from which each of us can benefit.

Why We Write

Maran writes nonfiction and fiction in all sorts of formats but took the time to convince 20 writers -- from Isabel Allende and David Baldacci to Jane Smiley and Meg Wolitzer, all chosen because of success at both craft and commerce -- to pause long enough in their work to ponder, "Why write?"

Maran herself says she writes "to answer my own questions." In an introduction, she quotes George Orwell, who, back in 1946, listed "four great motives" -- in his words, sheer egotism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purposes. She also recalls Joan Didion's follow-up 30 years later in The New York Times Book Review: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means."


Every statement of purpose in Maran's collection is followed by explanation and reasoning so that the reader is left with food for thought and lessons for use. As you read what motivates other writers, you learn about yourself through empathy or rejection and potentially help yourself through emulation, consideration, extension, appropriation, and/or revision.

I mentioned Isabel Allende, perhaps today's most prominent writer in the Spanish language. She says, "I need to tell a story. It's an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later."

Popular novelist David Baldacci says, "If writing were illegal, I'd be in prison. I can't not write. It's a compulsion."

Kathryn Harrison, who divides her time between creating nonfiction and fiction, insists, "I write because it's the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love."

Susan Orlean, whose byline appears in the best of magazines, and often, explains her passion: "I write because I love learning about the world. I love telling stories, and I love the actual experience of making sentences.

Jane Smiley writes about writing as well as novels and non-fiction. She says simply, "I write to investigate things I'm curious about." Then, as do the others, she elucidates.

And the adventure-seeking Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm, Fire) builds on this paragraph: "I'm not usually writing fiction, so I'm not wracking my brain for good ideas. My good ideas come from the world. I harvest them, but I don't have to think them up. All I have to do is take these things I've seen -- things people have said to me, things I've researched, artifacts from the world -- and convert them into sequences of words that people want to read. It's this weird alchemy, a kind of magic."

Good Prose

Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder (The Soul of a Good Machine) and prominent book and magazine editor Richard Todd (he was Kidder's editor for the Pulitzer Prize selection) write of their friendship and about what "The Art of Nonfiction" entails. The book makes for lovely reading. In the teaching, there is grace and generosity of spirit; in the learning one finds pleasure.

A perusal of content offers a glimpse of substance and approach. The chapters cover Beginnings, Narratives, Memoirs, Essays, Beyond Accuracy, The Problem of Style, Art and Commerce, and Being Edited and Editing. There's plenty of meat in each.


From "Beginnings," take these lines: "Writers are told that they must 'grab' or 'hook' or 'capture' the reader. But think about those metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader. Montaigne writes: 'I do not want a man to use his strength to get my attention.'

"Beginnings are an exercise in limits," Kidder and Todd continue in explanation. "You can't make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don't expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning."

How wisely considered, that argument, and how quietly stated.

Read Aloud

In discussing "The Problem of Style," the co-authors say: "...all rules of writing share a worthy goal: clear and vigorous prose. Most writers want to achieve that. And most want to achieve something more, the distinction that is called a style. It's an elusive goal, but the surest way to approach it is by avoiding the many styles that offer themselves to you. The world brims over with temptations for the writer, modish words, unexamined phrases, borrowed tones, and the habits of thought they all represent. The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself."

They assert that good writing must have a "human sound" and that, "if you can't imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn't write it." Expressed in different ways, have you heard that bit of advice before? In the pages of this newsletter? In this column? Well, let Kidder and Todd tell you once again, in their own inimitable style, that and much more amidst what they call "stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing."

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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