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Think and Plan

Posted on Wednesday, March 31, 2010 at 3:18 PM

To do it right, first think and plan.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Think before you write. Let your mind roam, so as to gather opportunities and possible extensions for your initial story idea.

Plan before you write. Consider how far you can take a subject without straining or distorting the original purpose. Determine what angles you can introduce to give the reader a broader or deeper or more multi-faceted view.

By thinking and planning first, you can enlarge and enrich a topic while still sticking to a point, without straying.

These matters came to mind as I waited for my doctor to catch up in his schedule and to see me per an appointment. To pass the time, I had picked up a copy of Road & Track magazine. Though I have no particular interest in cars, save for the always-present hope that mine will work rather than cause me grief, I do retain an interest in Road & Track. Some years ago, I paid a series of visits to its southern California headquarters to hold workshops with the magazine's editorial staff.

During those years, and even after, I used to get the publication through the mail, this so I could critique it. That subscription ran out a while ago. Staffers changed. Now, even the editor I worked with, Thomas Bryant, has become editor emeritus.

But there in the issue I was perusing was a byline I recognized, that of Peter Egan who had been part of the editorial team during my visits. He's a columnist now. And so, my curiosity aroused, I began to read his contribution for the month.

Set the Scene First

Peter uses "a working trip to California" as his starting point. "I was behind the wheel of a new ZR1 Corvette," he writes, "parked on a winding road north of Santa Barbara, waiting to move the car into position so our photo staff could shoot a cover shot for our March issue."

He sets the scene: "The road curved downhill toward a Capuchin monastery, scenically perched on a ridge. We'd rented this private road from the monastery so we could shoot photos without highway traffic speeding by."


The scene and situation are developed. He writes of passersby. He turns to description: "It was a beautiful spot, with the sun going down and a full moon rising over the Coastal Range, and we sat for perhaps half an hour, waiting for that magical moment of dusk when cars photograph best. Photographers, like vampires and werewolves, don't really come alive until it's that time of evening when you should really be looking for the nearest inn. To normal people, this hour is also known as 'dinnertime.'"


The column becomes reflective. "We like to mend our souls on placid mountaintops or in the clean white deserts," he states, "and then test them later in a more industrial setting." His thinking is "eroded by something on the Corvette's radio." Half listening, he chances upon a panel discussion "with congressional leaders, economists and various pundits discussing the pros and cons of a Detroit automotive bailout." The half listening changes into full-bodied.


Peter then summarizes the arguments: some say "we should throw money at the problem to stave off a general meltdown of the U.S. economy and to prevent massive unemployment;" others counter that "the car companies deserved to go broke because they'd failed to anticipate the sudden rejection of SUVs and trucks by the motoring public;" still others "thought this would be a great time to force the automakers into bankruptcy and break the unions forever." One commentator notes "Bankruptcy would just be 'Darwinian economics.'"

"Poor Darwin," continues Peter Egan. "The cold of heart have always forced a sociological spin on his biological work -- from Spencer all the way through Hitler and Stalin -- as if humans had no more free will or moral stature than trilobites or the lizards of the Galapagos Islands. Natural selection is a great excuse to ignore those who have not so richly deserved to succeed as you or I. And I'm not so sure about you."

The column has progressed from car test to spiritual reflection, from an overheard radio talk show about the economy to Darwin. It goes on to recapitulate the sins and perceived sins of auto chieftains. The "gathered politicians were very hard on the CEOs -- beat them up, really ... And perhaps they did have much to answer for."

But why, Peter wonders, was there "very little self-examination" when, perhaps, the problems could "be traced back to simple banking rules that Congress had failed to regulate? Hadn't the real trouble started not with car companies, but with banks making ridiculously risky real estate loans and then packaging them as 'commodities' and selling them on the world market.?"

Use Your Creativity

See how an assignment has, through a ranging, creative mind, become an auto industry-focused discussion of the economic crisis, surely as appropriate for Peter Egan's readers as the car test that had sent him out to California. He retraces the bailouts, the government's decision to "throw hundreds of billions at the banking and insurance industries to cover their mistakes, no questions asked." He ponders why the banking CEOs and "Wall Street geniuses who had brought this country to its knees," why "were they not sitting in the hot seat at a congressional hearing, being pilloried. Why had no arrests been made?"

His adrenaline "running high," he turns off the radio to restore his equilibrium and looks around the interior of his Corvette. "Wonderful car, this Corvette," he judges. "One of the best I've ever driven. Fast and remarkably refined, a distillation of years and years of research, engineering know-how and just plain hard work by people who really are highly trained and take their jobs seriously."

Peter is back on the job of analyzing cars. Looking around and feeling details, he falls in love again: "Beautifully stitched leather, nicely formed metal and several large trim sections of glossy carbon fiber ... Somewhere -- maybe in Detroit or elsewhere in the Midwest -- was a division of Chevrolet or an outside supplier where these sections of carbon fiber were produced. Somewhere there was a real shop where people got up in the morning, came to work and made these pieces. They knew how to mix and cure the chemicals, how to lay the fiber mats and how to form, trim and polish these parts. They knew how to make stuff."

Personal Details

Is it possible, he contemplates, that these people are "going to lose their jobs to the dazzling mixture of greed and incompetence displayed by our captains of finance?"

Writing his column at home in Rock County, Wisconsin, Peter Egan mentions the Janesville GM plant about 25 miles from his house that "closed this past December." The economic spinoff of that action "has been quite sobering to see. People need to move, but they can't sell their houses.

Restaurants are in a slump, shops of all kinds are closing. The car lots are quiet white deserts of snow. Our local paper had a front-page story today about all the churches in the area that are holding special masses and services to pray for the unemployed, and to organize relief."

He tells of a family in which both parents recently lost their jobs. "Should these people be bailed out," asks Peter. He winds up with more about shutdowns and the bailouts and a request that the politicians "stop talking about Darwin. It draws unwanted attention to their own sociological and biological fitness."

Creative Mental Travel

Peter Egan's column is titled "The Retreat of People Who Make Things." It reflects love and respect and anger and sadness, each feeling aimed in the proper direction, and all combined to sum up a troubling current reality. A car test set the column off. Mental travel completed it.

Don't be afraid to travel in your writing, but to do it right, first think and plan.

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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