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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

The Opus to Be Translated Is Yourself

Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week: News Fasting

While most of us want and need information now more than ever, a constant diet of news, and therefore stress, is not good for the immune system. So here's a proposal: try going for a day, or a half-day--or even two hours if you are a real addict--without reading or watching or listening to anything related to the pandemic, or any other bad or difficult news, for that matter. Give your nervous system a chance to calm down and recoup. It will thank you--it might even kiss your feet.

The Opus to Be Translated Is Yourself

Because writing can be frustrating, scary and difficult--though often wonderful as well--I love to see what writers I love say about writing. Since E.B. White is a current favorite (see last week's post), here are a few of my choice "White-on-writing" quotes.

Reply to a letter from a group of 4th graders in Ohio:

I'm not sure I can explain how to write a book. First, you have to want to write one very much. Then, you have to know of something that you want to write about. Then, you have to begin. And, once you have started you have to keep going. That's really all I know about how to write a book. [Letters of E. B. White, p.571]

In response to his brother Stanley sending him a ream of high quality paper as a gift:

I'm glad to report that even now, at this late day, a blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement there is for me--more promising than a silver cloud, prettier than a little red wagon....Having dirtied up probably a quarter of a million of them and sent them down drains and through presses, I am exhausted but not done....

I have moments when I wish that I could either take a sheet of paper or leave it alone, and sometimes, in despair or vengeance, I just fold them into airplanes and sail them out of high windows, hoping to get rid of them that way, only to have an updraft (or a change of temper) bring them back in once again. As for your gift of so many sheets of white bond, with rag content, I accept them in the spirit with which they were sent and shall write you a book. It will be the Greatest Book that has Ever Been Written. They all are, in the early wonderful stage before the first word gets slid into place. [Letters, p. 280-81]

One of White's professors at Cornell was the inimitable Will Strunk, who wrote the original version of The Elements of Style.

White noted that The Elements of Style was Strunk's attempt to cut the vast temple of English rhetoric down to size and write its rules and principles on the head of a pin....It is a forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy and brevity in the use of English. [Essays of E.B. White, p.258]

About a decade after Strunk died, White was asked to revise and update the book, which became known, informally, as "Strunk and White." You probably had to read it for a composition class somewhere along the way. It has sold ten million copies.

In 2011 Time magazine cited Strunk and White as one of the 100 most influential books of the previous nine decades.

If I had to choose a single concept from The Elements of Style that has had (or ought to have had) the most influence on writing over the decades it would probably be, "Omit needless words!"

White wrote that:

when [Strunk] delivered his oration on brevity to the class, he leaned forward over his desk, grasped his coat lapels in his hands, and in a husky, conspiratorial voice said, "Rule Thirteen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!"

He was a memorable man, friendly and funny. Under the remembered sting of his kindly lash, I have been trying to omit needless words since 1919...[that] huge task will never be accomplished." [Essays, p. 259]

I tend to let the word-dogs run loose, myself, when I first begin to write a piece, and then discover, under the tutelage of Strunk and White, that many of the words I thought I needed can be dropped without any side effects, except (perhaps) less confusion for the reader.

White agreed with Strunk that there needed to be some fairly strict rules for writing and grammar, but he also had an impish sense of humor. He wrote the following to his Elements of Style editor:

The next grammar book I bring out I want to tell how to end a sentence with five prepositions. A father of a little boy goes upstairs after supper to read to his son, but he brings the wrong book. The boys says, "What did you bring that book that I don't want to be read to out of up for?" [Letters, p.492]

Here are a couple more White quotes that, as a word nerd, I enjoy:

I am going to explain the Hyphen by citing the sad case of the merger of two newspapers in Chattanooga, which came out to read: CHATTANOOGA NEWS-FREE PRESS. That's my favorite hyphen. It's even better than some hyphens in Fowler [Fowler's Modern English Usage], if I do say so, and I do. [Letters, p. 625]

I've been rassling a set of Harper galleys [for his Essays book] and the work has exhausted this old author. I think the Harper copy-desk has found a happy (for them) solution to the problem of punctuation: whenever you see a comma, take it out; whenever none exists, put one in. This is easy to remember, gives a girl something to do with her pencil, and irritates the author. Anyway, I have just finished the awesome task of restoring about five thousand commas to their original position and removing an equal number from some very unlikely crevices indeed. [Letters, p.592]

I can relate to this since I am a comma girl myself--I think they're very important to cadence and to meaning. For example, there's that old favorite of the panda who by changing one comma either "eats shoots and leaves" or "eats, shoots and leaves." Take your pick. I kind of like the latter since a panda, though somewhat innocent looking, has a mask ready and waiting.

White struggled with his writing. "'It’s no good,' he often said morosely," once he'd put a column or article in the mail. I expect that part of this difficulty stemmed from his experiences with writing and with himself:

My theory of communication is different from yours [he wrote to a correspondent]. I think there is only one frequency and that the whole problem is to establish communication with one's self, and, that being done, everyone else is tuned in. In other words, if a writer succeeds in communicating with a reader, I think it is simply because he has been trying (with some success) to get in touch with himself--to clarify the reception. [Letters, p.417]

Self-awareness, though very rewarding, is rarely easy.

But here's an (apparently) contradictory take on writing:

This morning I suffer from the lightheadedness that comes from no sleep--a sort of drunkenness, very good for writing because all sense of responsibility for what the words say is gone. [Essays, p.257]

Perhaps "know yourself--and let it roll" was his philosophy.

To an aspiring young writer he once wrote,

"Remember that writing is translation and the opus to be translated is yourself." [Letters, p.346]

He was a stupendous translator for most of his life.

Following a head injury at age 85, Andy, as he was called by friends and family, declined both physically and mentally. Though he continued to recognize his loved ones, he was often confused about other things. He died in 1985, a little more than a year later.

On the twentieth anniversary of his death, his stepson, Roger, himself a writer, and an editor at The New Yorker, wrote an appreciation of Andy. He included a conversation he (Roger) had had with Joe White, Andy and Katherine White's son and Roger's half-brother:

Joe told me that in that long [final] year he’d read aloud to his father often, and discovered that he enjoyed listening to his own writings, though he wasn’t always clear about who the author was. Sometimes he’d raise a hand and impatiently wave a passage away: not good enough. Other evenings, he’d listen to the end, almost at rest, and then ask again who’d written these words.

“You did, Dad," Joe said.

There was a pause, and Andy said, "Well, not bad.”

All that I hoped to say in books, all that I ever hoped to say, is that I love the world.

E.B. White

Until next time,


Photo credits:

White in his studio (a corner of his old boathouse), Jill Krementz

His studio, Mark Fleming, Yankee magazine

Cartoon, unknown

Andy by his barn, unknown

The rope swing at Andy's farm, Mark Fleming, Yankee magazine (Look familiar? Hint: check out p.71 in Charlotte's Web)

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