Friday, January 31, 2014

E.B. White on writing

E.B. White had much to say about writing even besides what he contributed to Elements of Style. While reading The Story of Charlotte's Web by Michael Sims recently, I was struck by the many perceptive quotes from White on the subject of writing. Today I want to share some of those quotes, while adding my own comments.

"Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself."

How true that is. When we write, we translate our observations, our ideas, our feelings and our beliefs into words so someone else,  the reader, can better understand us. Sometimes something is lost in translation. We may never be able to translate everything we observe, think, feel or believe. Yet when the best writers are at work, something is gained in translation, too.

"All writing is both a mask and an unveiling."

Ah, yes. Writers write both to reveal and to obscure, sometimes both at the same time. Autobiographies and memoirs may be the best example of this. Authors do reveal much about themselves in these works, something most publishers probably insist upon. Why publish an autobiography that doesn't reveal something new? Yet the authors also use their books to make themselves look better, to give their own side of the story and to defend themselves against critics. To a lesser degree, writers of other varieties do much the same thing.

"A blank sheet of paper holds the greatest excitement for me."

Among the Christmas gifts we gave our 12-year-old granddaughter last month was a large, colorful box of stationery. It was filled with blank sheets of paper of various sizes and shapes, notepads and so on. Our son said she loved it and that as soon as she got home she opened the box and spread everything out across her bed. Aly "loves paper products," he explained. An aspiring writer, she has already passed what we might think of as the E.B. White test: Blank paper excites her. I know the feeling. It is sort of like any newborn baby, so full of potential. Almost anything might be possible with that new person or with that blank sheet of paper. Everything lies in the future.

"I was a man in search of the first person singular."

A retired columnist for the newspaper where I used to work once complained to me about a new columnist on the paper. He thought he wrote in first person too much. A good columnist, he thought, writes less about his own personal life and more about other people and about ideas and issues. His argument didn't entirely convince me, though it was often in the back of my mind when doing my own column writing. Some people, like White, search for the first person singular. They do their best writing when writing about themselves without trying to disguise the fact.

"I write largely for myself and am content to believe that what is good enough for me is good enough for a youngster."

That seems true. Whether one is writing for one reader, as in a letter, or millions, as in a novel likely to become a major bestseller, writers must first please themselves. Often a writer gets no feedback whatsoever, something I found true more times than not in the newspaper business. Did anybody actually read this? Who knows? I had to decide for myself whether what I wrote was any good. And, as White observed, if it was good enough for me it was good enough for the target audience. The trick, of course, is to have high standards in the first place.

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