Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Last to know

Vonnegut and Zinsser, authors I've stayed up late into the night with, both urged me to read E.B. White. From Vonnegut,
"White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced. You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say."1
and Zinsser,
"White was the writer who had most influenced me. His was the style—seemingly casual but urbane and wise—that I had long taken as my own model."2
I've read Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, of course, but was oblivious to White's acclaimed non-fiction work. I wasn't even sure I had the right guy.

I picked up a copy of "E.B. White Writings From the New Yorker 1925-1976" from the Toronto library. A blue hardcover book with 159 short pieces of writing. White wrote about life, current events, window displays, nature, whatever was on his mind. He wrote in a way that was fun for the reader, and made you care. Immediately, I realized, this is what blogs could be (realized I was doing it all wrong.)  I've heard blog advice about branding (confuses me), finding your voice (write until you start to sound like yourself), content calendars (tell your future self what they should say), inspiration (stealing ideas), and Didion. Six years I've spent tapping on my keyboard, and only now uncover the main point of the blog/personal essay: be interesting!

Give me more essays.

I didn't know that the "personal essay" existed. High school never hinted that the essay could break loose from the five paragraph structure. I avoid articles in magazines with large blocks of text and no pictures. If I accidentally read something interesting, I would call it nonfiction a fluke and turn back to novels and short stories. Now that my blind spot has been revealed I have work to do. I put "The Best American Essays", by Joyce Carol Oates & Robery Atwan, on hold at the Library. The library has only two copies of the book, and there are 15 holds placed. While I am waiting I have second book, "Essays of E.B.White" to finish, and the free essays available here.
Here is a taste of the writing that got me to come back, a line or two from pieces in the blue book:3
Dressing Up: "One of the male sparrows in Turtle Bay garden made a wonderful discovery at quarter past nine the other morning..." 4/20/46

Dismal: "The most startling news in the paper on February 13 was the weather forecast. It was "Rainy and dismal.". When we read the word "dismal" in the Times, we knew that the era of pure science was drawing to a close and the day of philosophical science was at hand. (Probably in the nick of time.)" 2/25/50

Unwritten: "Sometimes we regret our failure to write about things that really interest us. The reason we fail is probably that to write about them would prove embarrassing. The things that interested us during the last week, for example, and that we were unable or unwilling to write about (things that stand out clear as pictures in our head) were: ..."4/26/30

Seeing things: "The new reptile hall was officially opened a few days ago in the Museum of Natural History and we visited it amidst a group of youngsters who kept crying "Good night!" and their mothers who kept murmuring "Mercy!" The place is like that." 2/18/28

Tadpoles and Telephones: "There was a large bowl of tadpoles in the window of the Telephone Building as we came wandering along, lonely as a cloud. We stopped of course - we stop for anything in windows, particularly tadpoles." 6/2/28

Split Personalities: "The voices of radio and television are the voices of quick-change artists; they move rapidly from selling to telling and back to selling again. They are losing their sharpness because they have divided their allegiance." 2/19/55

Making Do: "A female friend of ours recently moved into a small apartment so full of defects as to be really quite charming." 8/11/45

Walking to Work: "From our home in the cinder belt to this Forty-third Street pent-up house where we work is a distance of some nine blocks - in a southwesterly direction. It has sometimes occurred to us that we take an unconscionably long time walking it, the time ranging from fifteen minutes to two hours and a half. Three-quarters of an hour is about par." 2/13/37

1. Source: How to Write With Style by Kurt Vonnegut  
2. Source: The American "Visions and Revisions",Writing On Writing Well and keeping it up-to-date for 35 years By William Zinsser March 1, 2009
3. Source: Writings from the New Yorker 1925-1976, E.B. White, Edited by Rebecca M. Dale. 

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