Imagine you are cooking dinner and your stove catches on fire. No problem, because you bought a new fire extinguisher the other day, and it's hanging on the wall right next to the stove. You grab the extinguisher and quickly read the instruction label. It reads: “My fascination with fire extinguishers began when I was a young child--early in 1963 as I recall...” I doubt you will think to yourself, “Wow, this will be really interesting to read!” You might rather that the instructions read: “Point extinguisher at the fire, pull the metal pin, and squeeze the black handle.” Knowing your audience and the reason you are writing goes a long way towards defining the style, tone, and content of your writing.Many well-meaning teachers and schools have done a pretty good job of killing the joy of writing by neglecting the natural origin and evolution of writing. You probably write a paper, hand it in, get a grade, and, more than likely, it is then buried in a sheave of other papers in the recesses of your backpack. These written works are handed in to a machine and spit back at us with a reptilian calculus and moral detachment. But words are meant to be heard and read, not damned with little praise or created in a vacuum. Even the greatest literary works are never finished; they are abandoned to a world where the writer hopes a willing ear will listen. If our focus is on imperfection, how can we ever look in the mirror?
John Updike gave a lecture at my school one night, and during the question and answer period a parent rose and asked what Mr. Updike thought about how writing is taught in our schools. Mr. Updike responded with a simple and laconic: “Well, I wish there were more yeses than no's.” The frustrated parent sat down with pursed lips and folded arms. It was obviously not the answer he anticipated. Even the word “essay” is derived from the French word “essai'” which means, “to try.” Let writers try, and let ourselves-like a respectful audience--listen with active minds and open hearts and offer our responses in the same spirit.
We need to remind ourselves that writing is a conversation from the head and heart to an actual person or persons. This is your audience! Writing is a new, interactive and exciting human adventure. As much as I love my dog, I seldom send her postcards from my travels; moreover, most of us don't carry on a conversation when no one is with us. My wife is an amazing writer. (She is also refreshingly untainted by living with a writing teacher.) “I write,” she says, “just like I talk.” This way of thinking is not a bad way to approach writing--plus, when writing, you get to rewind your conversation if you say something stupid. Good writers intuitively understand that writing should flow with the natural rhythm and unique cadence of the spoken word; they understand that rambling and disjointed writing is as unappealing as a rambling and disjointed conversation; moreover, they try with all their mind, and heart, and soul to make their written word aspire to the majesty of the most eloquent spoken word.
The written word is always an extension of the spoken word delivered to a specific audience--an audience that you need to visualize and see what they are willing and capable of understanding The written word is simply a new way to remember the spoken word. Novelists have taken over where the storytellers left off; newspapers and magazines have supplanted the town crier bellowing from the village square, while essayists now give lasting form and testament to the speeches and harangues that for centuries rallied the troops and urged countrymen to join a cause or crusade.
Our personal reflections and journals capture our quiet meditations and make palpable the fleeting memories of our lives, and they enliven and embolden the lives of our readers. Temper the steel of your imagination; hone and craft the voice you already have, and your words will ring clear and true through the ages yet to come. Your voice is as real as the acorn sprouting in the waiting earth, and, as the saying goes, “No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”
And aim high, for you will only hit what you aim at!