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Writing Is Lonely Business -- Part II

Posted on Sunday, October 30, 2016 at 11:55 PM

More wisdom from renowned writers on maintaining perspective and choosing the right words while writing and editing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Last issue brought you the start of a stream of advice from very experienced writers. This final installment offers more ideas for you to use in the sometimes lonely task of editing and writing.

Sense of Proportion, Humor, and Appreciation

My revered E.B. White, so effective both in fiction and nonfiction and as coauthor of The Elements of Style, discussed his approach to writing this way: "The writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever they happen to strike me." That's a warning for me, as I put this column together during a truly awful pre–presidential election cycle.

The Right Words

The versatile Diane Ackerman, a poet, naturalist, and writer of nonfiction articles and books, insists that "All language is poetry. Each word is a small story, a thicket of meaning.... We clarify life's confusing blur with words. We cage flooding emotions with words. We coax elusive memories with words. We educate with words. We don't really know what we think, how we feel, what we want, or even who we are until we struggle 'to find the right words.'" Ackerman is a star when it comes to choosing words.

Mark Twain, in a letter to a friend, counseled: "The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

Quiet Beginnings

Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Tracy Kidder and his journalistic colleague, editor Richard Todd, have considered beginnings, how to start: "Writers are told that they must 'grab' or 'hook' or 'capture' the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader.... Beginnings are an exercise in limits. 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." Good points.

Writing in Perspective

And, finally, from novelist, short story writer, and humanities professor Richard Ford comes this: "Writing can be complicated exhausting, isolating, abstracting, boring, dulling, briefly exhilarating: it can be made to be grueling and demoralizing. And occasionally, it can produce rewards. But it's never as hard as, say, piloting an L-1011 into O'Hare on a snowy night in January, or doing brain surgery when you have to stand up for ten hours straight, and once you start, you can't just stop. If you're a writer, you can stop anywhere, any time, and no one will care or ever know. Plus, the results might be better if you do."

Yes, writing is difficult, but think of other professions and think what your accomplishment can mean for those you reach with your words. Long years ago, between jobs, between being forced to put a magazine to sleep and being offered a short-term university teaching position, I spent a couple of weeks selling Christmas trees in bitter Chicago cold; with two young children, my wife and I needed the money. Now, whenever I get unhappy with my writing, I think about that experience; suddenly my discontent about writing alters into gratitude for what I've ended up doing most of my life: working with words rather than Christmas trees. Writing is not so bad, after all. I've come to love it.

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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