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Essential Matters

Posted on Monday, September 26, 2011 at 9:33 PM

Some points worth sharing.

By Peter P. Jacobi

Reading and editing adventures of late have brought essential matters back to mind. Those matters are worth sharing.

Twists of Rhetoric

Like twists of rhetoric, as when E.B. White began his 7,500 word declaration of love, his essay "Here Is New York," with this sentence: "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy." How neat is that inversion, how much more attractive than if White had started in predictable subject, predicate, object order: "New York will bestow..." And how about the choice of "queer" to identify the prize of living there, rather than "unusual" or "odd" or "different" or "strange."

Bring the Reader Close

Like closeness and distance. To reach beyond competency, bring the reader close. Good reporting, perceptive observation, and creative use of language are antidotes to the sort of writing that keeps the reader away from scene or situation. Your task is to immerse.

As does Mitch Albom, columnist for the Detroit Free Press, in "And Yet," his article for Sports Illustrated, about the "courage of Detroit." He sets scene: "This was Christmas night. In the basement of a church off an icy street in downtown Detroit, four dozen homeless men and women sat at tables. The smell of cooked ham wafted from the kitchen. The pastor, Henry Covington, a man the size of two middle linebackers, exhorted the people with a familiar chant. 'I am somebody,' he yelled. 'I am somebody!' they repeated. 'Because God loves me!' 'Because God loves me!' They clapped. They nodded."

The conversation, Albom tells us, turns to the Detroit Lions and its 0–16 record, and what the team's problems are, and who will be drafted. "Them Lions gotta do somethin', man," a homeless fellow waiting for his food is quoted as saying. And the story is underway: about despair and determination and hope and the sports of Detroit serving as metaphor for the city itself. Reader immersion comes quickly.

The Human Dimension

Like focus on people versus things, as Mike Sager does in The Secret Life of a Well-Dressed Man, for Esquire, the man "who won our contest to be named American's best dressed real man." The lesson behind the article deals with living better, more healthily, more productively, but proof becomes more emphatic and advice is more easily taken when filtered through the experience of a human. In this case, it's Kenyatte Nelson, "six foot two, two hundred pounds. A Leo (August), thirty-one years old. He has high cheekbones and a chiseled jaw that tapers into a cleft chin. His large black eyes are set against luminescent whites. His ebony face and skull have been shaved clean with a Wahl clipper, and Andis trimmer, and a Gillette Fusion razor, a ritual he performs about once a week."

We meet Nelson first at mealtime: "He lifts a forkful of omelet and chews thoughtfully, savoring a healthy combo of chicken and veggies, part of a dietary redirection that has left him, after six months of supreme willpower and about a trillion crunchies, nearly twenty pounds lighter with six-pack abs -- a boon to his self-esteem, his love life, and, most directly, his tailor."

That's the "after" Nelson, far different from the "before" version that tended "to carry his extra weight below his chest and above his knees," the result of eight post-M.B.A. years pursuing "the kind of food, drink, travel, and unfettered social life that befits a young single man rising up the corporate ladder." The human dimension.

Direction and Propulsion

Like having a sense of direction in your writing, making it clear to your readers as to where you're taking them. Graeme Wood does that for The Atlantic in Moving Heaven and Earth, an article about the threat of global warming and counter moves that some scientists are considering to save humankind, should matters become dire.

"If we were transported forward in time," Wood writes, "to an Earth ravaged by catastrophic climate change, we might see long, delicate strands of fire hose stretching into the sky, like spaghetti, attached to zeppelins hovering 65,000 feet in the air. Factories on the ground would pump 10 kilos of sulfur dioxide up through those hoses every second. And at the top, the hoses would cough a sulfurous pall into the sky. At sunset on some parts of the planet, these puffs of aerosolized pollutant would glow a dramatic red, like the skies in Blade Runner. During the day, they would shield the planet from the sun's full force, keeping temperatures cool -- as long as the puffing never ceased."

Wood says the technology is available now, and "we could do it cheaply: $100 billion could reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and some experts suspect that a hundredth of that sum could suffice. To stop global warming the old-fashioned way, by cutting carbon emissions, would cost on the order of $1 trillion yearly." The article has direction and propulsion.

Show Examples

Like showing by example, making the abstract specific, as Joyce Wadler does for The New York Times in Green Guilt, subtitled, "Even the most committed say they commit environmental sins." Wadler builds her story on one Josh Dorfman, author of The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living.

She writes: "He and his partner, Stephanie Holzen, a former stuntwoman, and their 5-month-old son, Shep, recently moved to a rental in a Victorian house in Crested Butte, Colo., where, he happily notes, the renovated stairway is made from reclaimed barn wood. Their furniture is also made from recycled wood and steel; in fact, the coffee table is wood that was reclaimed twice, having been salvaged from reclaimed wood that was being made into flooring.

"Mr. Dorfman, 38, and Ms. Holzen, 35, use natural cleaning products, and are 'constantly' drinking out of their Brita pitcher, so there is no need for disposable water bottles. All their personal-care products are organic, and Mr. Dorfman's clothes are made from organic cotton and recycled materials -- including his Nau blazer, which, he said, is made from recycled soda bottles.

"But they have one great greenie flaw: they are addicted to disposable diapers."

From that, and beyond, comes guilt. The "green" life is not considered green enough by the couple attempting to live it. The couple serves as author Wadler's example of "green guilt."

And that's it for the 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 for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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