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More "Surprise"

Posted on Monday, October 29, 2018 at 1:36 PM

Additional elements of surprise you can use to capture reader interest.

By Peter P. Jacobi

"Intensity" is the element of surprise that I concluded with last month.

However, to the contrary of "intensity" there can be surprise in geniality and lightheartedness. Davis Benjamin's delightful memoir of growing up in the Midwest, The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked, supplies these in scoops. Here's a scoop:

"Summer was for detachment. Families drifted apart blissfully. Kids had no hours. We had no plans. We had no summer jobs. We had no meetings. We barely had lunch. We had no goals or expectations. We had no coaches, no guidance, no batting order, no lineup cards. We batted but we had no batting averages. We kicked and counted no goals. We fought, we fell, we crashed, we bled, we twisted and strangled and throttled ourselves. We almost drowned, in unfiltered water. Set loose without instructions, we melted into the neighborhood, populated the playgrounds and sandlots, pilfered the orchards, and puked green apples. We slunk into the woods and we hunted." Shareable memories.


Surprise also comes from the wonders of possible but very unlikely experience, such as Robert Mads Anderson's life achievement: making a solo ascent of the highest mountain on every continent. His account is compelling:

"The temperature started at minus 10 degrees and went down; high on the peak the winds started at 80 kilometers per hour and went up. Exposed skin turned white in seconds, and black blisters formed the next day.... The wind cut through my clothing as though I were naked. Fifteen minutes on top reduced me to a shivering ball of ice, the climb down warming me to marginally freezing. Thirty hours after I left the tent, I crawled back through the door."


Thrills we can and do experience can and do surprise, in the writing as well as in the experience. Robert Klara rode the Cyclone at Coney Island and wrote about it in the USAir magazine, when, not so long ago, there was still a USAir and its magazine:

"At the top of the hill, the cars lean nauseatingly to the right before dropping you, nose-down at a 58.1-degree angle, the distance of a seven-story building. Your heels dig into the wood floor as your fanny, devoid of gravity, floats off the seat. Screaming might feel better, if only there were time. You hit the trough fast enough to trip a speed gun on I-95 and rocket to the peak of another hill, which knocks hats and glasses loose as the cars bank the turn. Now breathe, curse the person who persuaded you to do this -- and down you plummet again. Go ahead and scream now." The thrill is there, in words.

Act of Love

Finally, I believe surprise is an act of love: writing that exudes love for the task, the process; love for the topic; love for the word, the language; love for the wisdom being passed along; love for life and living; love for your reader.

In my keynote, the example, chosen to represent that consuming word and act, was Byrd Baylor's Everybody Needs a Rock. The Texas-born Baylor who, as a lover of the desert and outdoor spaces, made her home in Arizona in an adobe house she and a few friends built, also wrote If You Are a Lover of Fossils and The Way to Start a Day. Her works are love poems to the earth and how to live upon it. Here is a small portion of her multi-numbered argument for a personal rock. Again, I'm not spacing her words in a poetic manner, to save space, and I can't provide any of the illustrations that her literary partner Peter Parnall adds to her little books.

"Everybody needs a rock. I'm sorry for kids who don't have a rock for a friend. I'm sorry for kids who only have tricycles, bicycles, horses, elephants, goldfish, three-room playhouses, fire engines, wind-up dragons, and things like that -- if they don't have a rock for a friend. That's why I'm giving them ten rules for finding a rock. Not just any rock. I mean a special rock that you find yourself and keep as long as you can -- maybe forever." The book holds magic that emanates from the heart and mind of Byrd Baylor and sweeps onto printed pages to surprise me, her reader, with love.

What more can I say: "I Didn't Expect That, and It Is Wonderful."

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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