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The Most Important Question

Posted on Saturday, July 30, 2016 at 11:02 AM

To develop a unique voice, writers must first ask themselves who they are.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Those of you who have been my readers for a while or longer may remember that about this time each summer, I share with you the lessons embedded in a keynote address I give at a workshop designed for writers who focus on young readers. My thought has been that advice I believe is good can benefit writers, no matter what the makeup of their readership.

The title of this year's lecture is "The Most Important Question." And I opened with selections from a very sweet picture book by Margaret Wise Brown, whose most famous work is the widely revered Goodnight Moon. The Brown creation I chose is "The Important Book," focused on the theme, "The important thing about..." The author completes those words with fanciful declarations for grass, wind, snow, spoons, shoes, the sky, and about a dozen more.

Sample: "The important thing about the sky is that it is always there. It is true that it is blue and high and full of clouds and made of air. But the important thing about the sky is that it is always there." Brown ends the collection with this: "The important thing about you is that you are you. It is true that you were a baby, and you grew. And now you are a child, and you will grow into a man or into a woman. But the important thing about you is that you are you." The last three words are exhibited in huge script filling an entire page.

"Who Am I?": Establishing Voice

That led me to "The Most Important Question." The writer must first accept the reality of "you are you" and then follow with that most important question: "Okay, but then, who am I?" To that, French writer André Gide recommended perceptively: "Be faithful to that which exists nowhere but in yourself -- and there make yourself indispensable."

Successful writers understand and employ that dictum. We, the consumers of their gifts, await and celebrate the results. We listen for voice, meaning the writer's individuality, personality, distinctiveness, his or her artistic signature. No matter what we're reading by, say, E. B. White --a story for children or an essay for adults, a piece of fiction or nonfiction -- it has that recognizable voice, qualities baked into the language by a writer who has vented his preferences.

If we like E. B. White for his writing, we come to the reading with expectations based on the traits and temperament this very special wordsmith developed and refined over time: the way his language sounds and the honesty and uniqueness we see in print -- in other words, how he approaches and expresses his work, meaning his voice.

Attributes of Highly Effective Writers

From writers, I seek singularity and creativity in their labor, factors that separate the best artists from others. I look for conviction, the writer's belief in what he or she is striving to reveal. I'm always game to be entertained. Entertainment, to me, does not necessarily mean something light or frivolous or funny; the very serious needs to be entertaining, too. A well-written biography, for instance, probably will include sad moments in that person's life as well as lighter ones. It matters how the writer expresses the hurt. Entertainment is an important goal; it's a magnet that won't let me go.

Zeal also impresses me. I want to recognize hard work, a lot of effort, in the product presented to me. I value generosity, too -- generosity of spirit, a writer's desire to give all and then some. Rich content attracts me. Authenticity works for me, as well; I want the article or essay or news story or what have you to contain substance rather than empty fluff, and I want the writing to sound stylistically right, comfortably natural, maybe even inspired. A given, of course, is that the basics have been carefully taken care of; I expect that technical matters (grammar, spelling, flow, completeness) are all to the good. I don't like an editorial mess; it destroys my trust. Lack of care means lack of love to me, and I like to feel love in what I read.

I want to be reminded by the profundity of substance and the excellence of writing that the art of writing is a positive force in this troubled world. The writer John Updike put his finger on it: "My first thought about art, as a child, was that the artist brings something into the world that didn't exist before and that he or she does it without destroying something else.... That still seems to be its central magic, the core of joy."

I've cut down the supporting arguments and removed the literary samples that helped prove the points. But think about the above trail of suggestions; it should be helpful for you, as writer, and/or for the writers you edit.

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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