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The Power of Observation

Posted on Friday, April 29, 2016 at 10:03 PM

Strive for an on-the-scene presence to greatly enrich your story.

By Peter Jacobi

Having decided to finally stop teaching at Indiana University 16 years after official retirement, I recently needed to follow that decision with an action, to vacate my on-campus office. In the process, I came upon copies of two favorite books that I took home:

--A Treasury of Great Reporting: "Literature under Pressure" from the Sixteenth Century to Our Own Time, edited by two history professors, Louis L. Snyder from the College of the City of New York and Richard B. Morris from Columbia University, and published by Simon and Schuster in 1949.

--Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, an English professor from Oxford, and published by Harvard University Press in 1987.

As I had done countless times previously, I started to skip through the pages, looking at whatever I chanced upon. And in so doing, I recalled a lesson emphasized throughout, that during the reporting phase of information gathering, we should not forget the power of observation, that being there allows you (the writer) to take me (the reader) there. Virtually every item in the two books benefits from the use of being there, of observation. Consistently, I'm taken to the where of an event and, just as consistently, I gain a sense of presence, of eyewitnessing. I swiftly find myself close to the action and, thereby, gaining a feel for the story, a care, an enthusiasm or need for reading more.

Comprehending the Author's Experience

Amerigo Vespucci, on his second voyage to the New World in 1502, takes us down the coast of Brazil to a fantasy of vegetation, of wild animals ("We saw so many other animals that I believe so many could not have entered Noah's ark."), and of "natural animals." "We found the whole land," writes the explorer, "inhabited by people entirely naked, the men like the women without any covering of their shame. Their bodies are well proportioned, of light color, with long hair, and little or no beard.

"For people who have no iron or indeed any metal," he continues, "one can call their cabins truly miraculous houses. For I have seen habitations which are 220 paces long and 30 wide, ingeniously fabricated, and in one of those houses dwelt five or six hundred persons. They sleep in nets woven out of cotton, going to bed in mid-air with no other coverture. They eat squatting on the ground."

Vespucci's seeing and experiencing that destination of discovery offers us, as readers, an opportunity to comprehend his excitement.

Observed Details

In another used story, a British writer, Robert Wynkfielde, shares an eyewitness account of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1586. He reported: "Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms, cried In manus tuas, Domine, etc. three or four times. Then she, lying very still upon the block, one of the executioners holding her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe, she making very small noise or none at all.... and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder, he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen.

"Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters," the report continues, "espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders." Such detail can come only from a reporter/writer being there.

On-the-Scene Words

Jack London, in April of 1906, sees a city die; therefore, we do. "San Francisco is gone," London writes. "Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs are all gone. Remains only the fringe of dwelling houses on the outskirts of what was once San Francisco."

Granted that photos can capture the San Francisco scene, and by 1906, of course, we had the art of photography in full development to assist in the coverage of such stories as the San Francisco earthquake. But the on-the-scene words from Jack London surely help us travel there.

Thoughts Combined with Sights

Magner White of the San Diego Sun earned a Pulitzer for his coverage of an eclipse of the sun in September 1923. He verbalized his observations: "And now still darker. The Mistress Moon moves on in her eternal path, prompt in her appointment. Tiny humans on the globe below, the Earth -- how inconsequential before this relentless, dogged power of the solar bodies moving in their orbits. Darker! The real shadow is coming! Incredible speed. It bursts in from the sea, going 25 miles a minute. Night is upon us. What is this fear we can't keep down? The hint of the infinite night -- a world with no sun!

"Our friends give us ghastly smiles, pale lilies they are. Shadow bands stripe the earth; quivering crescents of light flit on the sides of buildings. The city glows in puny artificial light. The blot in the sky is now complete. The sun is gone!" We have a writer's thoughts interspersed with sights seen. That's a winning combination.

Yes, library and records research is important. Yes, finding sources to question is important. But strive for an on-the-scene presence to greatly enrich the body of information from and with which you write.

And try to find copies of the two books. They are great reads as well as tools for learning.

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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