On Accessibility


Let me share a bit of exposition. Among the literati in the writing community, accessibility is not a virtue.  In a workshop, while studying for my MFA, a writing colleague attempted a polite critique. “Your writing . . . it’s . . . well . . . so accessible.” You might think that being understood is commendable. Alas, in the literary world, “you are SO accessible,” is similar to the sentiment conveyed when a kindly southern lady says, “Well, bless her heart!”

I choose now to write about the topic of “accessibility, “ a concept I have argued for and against these last 15 years of writing nonfiction for various venues, including a 10-year stint for a local short-form women’s magazine easily found in waiting rooms across the city. My stint with Today’s Woman Magazine provided deadlines, audience, and payment—three things that all aspiring writers wish for. I enjoyed hearing from acquaintances that had read my essay at the dentist’s office and laughed out loud, before they realized I had written it. I imagined women in carpool lines on both sides of the Ohio River thumbing through the magazine, and passing five minutes distracted pleasantly with my written composition. I was proud of my writing, yet I did not share it with many colleagues in the writing community.

Fearing my membership to The Literary Club would be forever denied, I worked ardently to become less accessible. I ramped up vivid description, played with structure and chronology, verb tense and syntax. And I kept writing for the woman’s magazine.  My artful sentence fragments, wordy simile and occasional off-topic jaunts must have frustrated the copyeditor.

Recently, I attended another workshop—this one led by a famous essayist, and attended by sixteen groupies. Writers are slow learners. We go to workshops repeatedly, always hoping for praise, and often receiving something different.

“You have a lyrical gift,” the famous essayist said. But . . . there are problems with chronology and verb tense. Structure requires too much thought from your audience. I wished I had said aloud what I was thinking: “That lyricism is not a gift; it’s what I’ve been working on all these years!”  It appeared that, in my effort to become more literary, I had become inaccessible.

I do not wish to be ordinary, as a human or a writer; neither do I want my effort at inventiveness to separate me from the reader.

On the definition of “accessible,” etymologists agree: It is a space easily reached and understood without special knowledge. It is a space that is easy to enter.  I want to invite the “ordinary” person to escape into the written world I create. I like the idea of writing something that my reader understands.  I like to craft sentences that seem to have been easily written (though I’ve sweated each word).

There is comfort in the idea that accessibility is something a reader may enter easily. I do not have to be simple. I can play with language while maintaining respect for my reader. As the wonderful accessible New Yorker essayist EB White once said, “Be obscure clearly.”

A version of this blog essay first appeared on the website of Louisville Literary Arts , where I serve as president of the board of directors.



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