Monday, September 22, 2014

Roger Angell on E. B. White

I love to read great writers discussing other great writers. Recently, my friend Paul Henning sent me a copy of a passage in which Roger Angell (pictured) discusses how E. B. White worked. Mr. White was Mr. Angell’s stepfather.

Be sure to read the last line. If you understand it, you are probably an accomplished writer.

White’s gift to writers is clarity, which he demonstrates so easily in setting down the daily details of his farm chores: the need to pack the sides of his woodshed with sprucebrush against winter; counterweighting the cold-frame windows, for easier operation; the way the wind is ruffling the surface of the hens’ water fountain. Clarity is the message of “The Elements of Style,” the handbook he based on an early model written by Will Strunk, a professor of his at Cornell, which has helped more than ten million writers—the senior honors candidate, the rewriting lover, the overburdened historian—through the whichy thicket. “Write in a way that comes naturally,” it pleads. “Do not explain too much.” Write like White, in short, and his readers, finding him again and perhaps absorbing in the process something of that steely modesty, may sense as well the uses of patience in waiting to discover what kind of writer will turn up on their page, and finding contentment with that writer’s life.
He was a demanding worker. He rewrote the first page of “Charlotte’s Web” eight times, and put the early manuscript away for several months, “to let the body heat out of it.” Then he wrote the book again, enlarging the role of the eight-year-old girl, Fern, at the center of its proceedings. He was the first writer I observed at work, back in my early teens. Each Tuesday morning, he disappeared into his study after breakfast to write his weekly Comment page for The New Yorker—a slow process, with many pauses between the brief thrashings of his Underwood. He was silent at lunch and quickly went back to his room to finish the piece before it went off to New York in the afternoon mailbag, left out in the box by the road. “It’s no good,” he often said morosely afterward. But when the new issue turned up the next week the piece was good—unstrained and joyful, a snap to read. Writing almost killed you, and the hard part was making it look easy. (Source)

The Takeaway: Whatever your aptitude, and whatever your current ability, you can become a vastly better writer if you: (1) keep writing, (2) demand the best from yourself, and (3) ask for criticism. Do those three things and you will improve; there is no doubt whatsoever.

See disclaimer.

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