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A Dozen Guises

Posted on Friday, July 31, 2009 at 2:53 PM

What or who are we as writers?

By Peter P. Jacobi

Because I believe all of us who write for a livelihood need bucking up now and then, I do not hesitate giving space annually in this column to the substance of what I share with an auditorium full of writers in a keynote address given at the Chautauqua Institution each July.

The talk is meant to inspire and arouse thought, while also reminding the attendees of skills they need to apply in their work and/or responsibilities they have as professional communicators. Just as I feel what I say might help those at the conference, so I feel it might benefit you.

The talks themselves are filled with examples of good writing to prove my points. We haven't the space for all that, but even without the exemplars, the issues brought up should make an impression, or so I always hope.

Taking off this time from the thesis posed by the French philosopher Rene Descartes, "I think; therefore, I am," I moved his argument to: "I write; therefore, I am." Pressing on, I asked my listeners to then consider a next step: If I am, what, or who, am I? Here is some of what I said.

We are someones who feel compelled to "cover pages with tiny sentences," as former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins put it. And why? Perhaps, as Anais Nin noted, "to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection." We do live twice, part of the world we three-dimensionally live in and part of the world we make materialize on paper.

And we are any number of possibilities and probabilities, guises and realities. Permit me to enumerate and expound on a few.

We Are Adventurers

As writer, I am -- you are -- an ADVENTURER. The unknown is our destination or the improbable. We're willing to explore, risk danger, take chances. We've the courage to let our imagination soar at will, to let our dreams guide us, to allow mental roaming and emotional free-wheeling and verbal spontaneity, to welcome experiment. We feel just fine trying what might not work or might turn outrageous. We are prepared to wander daredevilishly into uncharted territory, sensing that there might be victory in the quest.

We Are Comforters

Quite differently and yet just as pointedly, we are -- as writers -- a COMFORTER, someone who can assuage hurt and anguish, who smoothes edges when feelings get ruffled, who balances emotions when they threaten to teeter, who rubs balm on troubled senses, who ameliorates, relieves, relaxes, even heals, who chases away clouds, who transcends the issue or problem at hand and causes the aggrieved out there -- a reader -- to locate assistance or guidance of far broader application and implication than might have been asked or prayed for.

We Are Educators

Your proof of existence comes also as EDUCATOR, as teacher, and here -- as Henry Adams wrote in The Education of Henry Adams -- you have the opportunity to "affect eternity" because a teacher "can never tell where his influence stops." You are an instructor, a way-shower, an outlook changer, a knowledge enhancer, a wisdom shaper.

We Are Enrichers

And what else are you? An ENRICHER. As John Updike once explained: "My first thought about art, as a child, was that the artist [the writer] brings something into the world that didn't exist before, and he does it without destroying something else...That still seems to me its central magic, its core of joy." You enrich, improve, embellish, build, develop, endow, supplement, sweeten. You offer food for thought.

We Are Entertainers

Next, to further prove you exist, as writer: you're an ENTERTAINER, a captivator, beguiler, charmer, distracter, enlivener, amuser, stimulator, the tickler of ribs and heart and funny bone, the engrosser, the cajoler, the enticer.

We Are Friends

And we exist, most fortunately for lots of folks, because, as writers, we are a FRIEND. For someone we do not even know, for someone we are likely never to meet, we become a friend, someone to turn to, a helpmate, a soul-mate, someone to bond with, an at-distance companion. Our words, our expressed thoughts, become a most welcome glue, a connection that suggests to the reader, "I am not alone. That writer seems to know me, to understand me, to have the capacity to fulfill a need or want. In him or her, I have an advocate."

We Are Historians

What are we, as writers? We are also a HISTORIAN: that is chronicler, archivist, and documenter; that is authenticator and commemorator and analyst of the past, narrator and memoirist of bygone times, preserver of what was yesterday for readers of today and tomorrow.

We Are Links

Just as we are historians, looking backward, we, too, are a LINK: of individual to individual and group to group, town to town and nation to nation. We are the reporters, the news purveyors, the substance providers and animators of media, the town-criers, the journalists, the means -- when news is made -- by which it is sent forth and spread. Where one-on-one communication becomes impossible or inadequate, we become the necessary intermediaries. And as such, as link, you must well know, we exist. There'd be gobs of trouble if we didn't.

We Are Magicians

What else are we, as writers who exist? We are a MAGICIAN. Figment or fancy can be our product. If such is our aim, we conjure aura. We enchant. Perhaps the goal is to capture an actual moment or scene with such precision and/or glitter and/or shadowed sensuality that it accrues magic, in which case reality has been so sharpened as to gain something akin to the surreal. Our words may, on the other hand, be meant to bewitch by engendering a world beyond our own, imaginary or interplanetary. Either way, we have the power to do magic with words.

Need more proof about why we exist and what we are?

Maybe not, but I'll give you three more.

We Are Preachers

You're a PREACHER, an exhorter, a sermonizer, an evangelist for causes, a believer who believes a belief needs circulation. As preacher, you might take on the ways of a soap box orator, a shouter, a haranguer, a hell-fire admonisher. Your argument, however, can be made less tumultuously, more indirectly, more subtly, and yet with equal, even possibly greater, force through narrative and descriptive and expository techniques. They can be highly persuasive arguers.

We Are Story Tellers

As an existing writer, you also are a STORY TELLER. Do I need to define that? Readers love stories: as just stories, as explanation, as polemic, as metaphor. Readers love stories, fictional or non-fictional, that thrill or soften the heart or amuse or surprise. Barbara Tuchman advises: "I want the reader to turn the page and keep on turning to the end. This is accomplished only when the narrative moves steadily ahead, not when it comes to a weary standstill, overloaded with every item uncovered in the research."

We Are Visionaries

Which brings me to another proof of our existence: we can be a VISIONARY, dreamer, enthusiast, Don Quixote, as we see our topic in terms probably not contemplated by our readers. We can make them see in a different light, an altered way. Through a chosen perspective, we can make a subject larger or better or more important than common acceptance has previously made it. We can write of it so that the reader will never again think of the subject in quite the same way as before.

Now we should know what we are and how important we can be. Should we then also be reminded of what burdens these faces of the writer place on us? I think so, but about that next month.

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. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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