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Voyages of Discovery

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 at 12:57 PM

Writers as travel guides for their readers.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I recall a trip to New York City a couple of decades ago, this one to serve as judge in that year's National Magazine Awards. My assignment as part of a panel: to select the best magazine overall, for the totality of its editorial quality, among publications with circulation over 500,000. There were five finalists. I no longer remember the five, only one. I no longer remember which magazine was selected as winner, if it was the one I still recall or another.

But my memory clings to Travel + Leisure because of an article in one of the three issues we were each given for judgment. The article was titled "A South Seas Adventure," and it was written by Charles Monaghan. The subject was a far-off destination, New Guinea.

Wrote Monaghan: "Somewhere there is a place that will change my life. Its physical beauty will shock me into seeing my own world in a wholly new way. The lives of the people there will be so sharply different from mine that they will be a mirror to me, and in that mirror I will see all my faults and fears and gather the courage to eradicate them. This place will be so untouched by my civilization that I will be renewed just by coming to know it. To visit it will be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, a necessary adventure of the soul.

"That longing for such a place," Monaghan continued, "is buried deep in our psyches. It is an idea that surfaces again and again in our literature and myth. And it surely is a part -- a small part, sometimes a great part -- of the impetus that drives us to travel, that makes travel such a poignant and important part of our lives."

Sitting there, among other judges gathered in a great hall of the building that houses the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and reading of Monaghan's personal journey, I thought that this longing he wrote of surely is a part of the impetus that drives us to read because to read, I believe, is to travel. Writers are, for themselves, travelers. And that means writers are, for the reader, travel guides.

Traveling with Mind and Heart

It's not physical travel we're dealing with, of course, even though the topic might just be that: a trip to New Guinea taken by the writer suggested as a future course of action for the reader. But reading is MIND travel and HEART travel. That's what we're about when we put words on a page.

Begins with the Writer Voyage

What we offer are VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY. The writer, when he or she writes, makes/shapes/forms/creates a voyage of discovery. The reader, when she or he reads, then takes/accepts/experiences a voyage of discovery. There can be no reader voyage without, first that writer voyage.

Make It an Interesting Voyage

The task, a complex one, is for the writer to make a voyage interesting enough, exciting enough, worthwhile enough, entertaining enough, inspiring enough, compelling enough for the reader to follow through and actually take the offered journey. It is our task to find an ever clearer path to the reader's mind and heart. We need to find the right destination and the right path and the right itinerary and the right purpose, so to plan and then prepare and present a travel package hard for the reader to refuse, hard for the busy reader with a life of multiple other options to refuse.

Plan the Voyage

Know what sort of voyage you want to undertake, and know why. Know what it takes to get from here to there, from start to finish; what materials you require, what directions will get you to the desired destination, what obstacles might get in the way, what techniques you can employ to overcome the obstacles and ease the passage, make it a pleasure to undertake.

Take the Voyage Seriously

It's all about decisions and consequent actions, this Voyage of Discovery, this writing project. Stephen King says, "You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair.... You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names.... Come to it any way but lightly.... you must not come lightly to the blank page."

You "must not come lightly to the blank page." From idea generation forward, take your voyage seriously. If you don't, you'll later find that the finished product is not one that the reader will take seriously enough to expend energy or time on.

Make the Voyage Purposeful

There must be reason for what you undertake. There must be purpose. There must be compulsion: something to drive you through all the labor that's to come. Have you figured out your purpose? Is it to educate, to entertain, to make your reader imagine, to make him or her live in the past or hop into the future?

Map Out the Voyage

And after you've determined the purpose of your literary voyage, what do you need then? A map! Without a map, you wander here and there or worse, you travel down a dead end. Beryl Markham, the respected writer of West with the Night and noted pilot, addressed the issue of maps. "A map," she mused, "says to you, 'Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not.' It says, 'I am the earth in the palm of your hand. Without me, you are alone and lost.'"

The pilot requires maps. So do you, the writer. You need one for your Voyage of Discovery. Out of an idea and out of material you have gathered, the collected information, you must shape order. Your article, your story needs structure, an architecture, a sense of direction, a logical progression, a design that brings shape and meaning to facts. This is your map.

Taking the Reader on the Voyage

An idea purposed for the reader, then researched, reported, and molded into meaningful form: these acts on your part precede the actual travel, the actual writing. With the writing, your imagination must take wing; that is where your destination comes into focus and where you provide the satisfying journey, the details that convince the reader he or she has made the right choice to travel along with you.

It matters HOW you write WHAT you write. It matters how you choose the details for what you write. It matters how you sequence the language for whom you have chosen to be your guests on the journey. Know your audience. Know your reader. Try to enter the mind of your reader and into the experiential life of your reader. What will he or she know, not know, care about, not care about, want to find out about, be enticed by, be excited by, be inspired by, be set to dreaming, be set to desiring?

Yes, be set to dreaming, to desiring, to inhabiting, to embracing, to devouring. Writer T. Jefferson Parker says, "Leave your readers with something experienced, not just something read. Give them an emotional reality. Make it impossible for them simply to chuck your book [or article] into the wastebasket when they've finished reading." Make it linger, haunt, last.

Go at the task step by difficult step with enthusiasm, vigor, devotion, and belief. Successful writing does require your enthusiasm for the topic, the vigor in developing it, devotion to its content and message, belief in its importance.

More next time on how to make your Voyage of Discovery the reader's.

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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