Monday, October 5, 2009

A Moment of Truth

If you had to use one word to describe the traditional approach to writing about the real world it would be “authoritative.” Writing itself has authority. If “it is written” then it must be true. Authoritative language removes the narrator from the narration. Journalists are given style sheets to explicitly eliminate the human element from their reporting. They must write in the third person as the omniscient narrator. They must use formal language and distance themselves from the reader. They are NEVER to use the word “I” but if they have to refer to themselves, perhaps to insert an eyewitness tidbit, they must use the term “this reporter.” If an opinion is called for, they are to use the “editorial we” and not personalize themselves. The “editorial we” is particularly disingenuous, and runs counter to the veracity the author is trying to convey. Here’s what Mark Twain said about that term: Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial "we."

As every teacher knows, truth can be conveyed through humor, lyricism, passion, human experience, and one’s own quirky take on the facts. It doesn’t have to be told in dry, unvarnished terms to be credible. The accuracy of factual information has nothing to do with an authoritative delivery. In fact, when a teacher humanizes content with his or her personal spin, the lesson resonates more profoundly with students. At their best, such lessons can be inspiring. In fiction, it is the storyteller’s voice that makes a novel memorable. But it has taken a long time for this concept to filter down to us nonfiction authors. Voice matters. When I found mine, I had to fight for it.

In 1980 I was commissioned to write a book about microbiology for kids but on a macro level. The illustrations were not going to show what you might actually see under a microscope. There was no budget for micrographs. (In those days, publishers skimped on the art for nonfiction. My book was illustrated in two colors and black to save money.) The book was titled Lots of Rot. The lead sentences were: “Want to smell something rotten? Take a deep breath by a garbage can.” The editor sent the manuscript back with the lead sentences rewritten: “Have you ever smelled something rotten? You probably have if you’ve ever taken a deep breath by a garbage can.” Every active verb in the book had been changed to passive voice. Everything that was playful and engaging had been reworded to distance me from the reader and formalize the text. I was told that the first sentence was a sentence fragment and that wouldn’t do for teaching proper English. As I read through the editorial comments I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I made an appointment to fight for my book. I bought a new suit, wrote up a brief “In Defense of Lots of Rot,” said my prayers and, with my head high, met with my publisher and editor and made my case. I lost. Three days later they called my agent and said, “If Vicki won’t write the book the way we want it, we won’t publish it.”

Even though I needed the money, I told my agent to pull the book. It was later published as I had written it. Then came the test. I was sitting at my new publisher’s booth at a convention with Lots of Rot on display, hot off the press. A young girl walked by and picked up the book, and started reading. White knuckled, I watched and wondered will she turn the page? She did. Then she turned the next page and settled her chin in her hand to read. Her mother said it was time to go. “Wait,” she said. “I want to finish this.” Validation! My resolve is now steel.

One would think after all these years that my battles would be over. But I still run into editors who don’t “get it” when it comes to “voice” in nonfiction. I still find myself, as Desi Arnaz would say, “splainin’” why I write the way I write. I’m a playful person, still a kid at heart. I have a good sense of humor. I care deeply about my subject matter. I bring these qualities to my writing. In this day and age of too much information, “the facts and nothing but the facts” doesn’t cut it. Only the revealed humanity of an author’s voice creates literature and achieves meaningful and authentic communication with readers. To stifle it with old-fashioned notions about being authoritative and adhering to tradition is counterproductive to both reading and learning. When speaking to children, person to person, an author's voice recognizes and honors their humanity. They get it; connections are made. And that, in my opinion, is the truth.


Rosalyn Schanzer said...

I love the fact that great books of nonfiction can be absolutely accurate and still allow the author to have a truly compelling voice of his or her own. If we had to follow all those rules that suck the juice out of a story, nobody would ever want to read anything. A sense of humor? Even better!

Loreen Leedy said...

Good for you for sticking to your guns.