Monday, September 12, 2016

From A Writer on Writing

An author is nearly always that shadowy soul behind the story, a mysterious creator of the tale that comes alive for us and sticks with us after we have read to the last word. I mentioned that reading the Letters of E. B. White was a wonderful way for me to come to know one of America’s favorite writers better. I thought you might enjoy reading a few things I underlined in regard to his feelings and opinions on writing.

In one response to an inquiry about the help White’s wife gave him in his writing (she was a superb editor at The New Yorker), he had this to say: “My wife is helpful to me in my writing, but she does not write. She is an editor. An editor is a person who knows more about writing than writers do, but who has escaped the terrible desire to write. I have been writing since 1906, and it is high time I got over it. A writer, however, writes as long as he lives. It is the same as breathing except that it is bad for one’s health. Some of my writings have won prizes, but awards of that sort are not very much fun or satisfaction, and I would rather have a nice drink of ginger ale, usually. Writing does have its rewards, but they do not come in packages…”

This is just a sample of White’s wit, which was revealed in his lifetime of letters and made reading this book so entertaining. Hundreds of fans of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan deluged him with requests for personal information, curious, as we all are, about the man behind our favorite stories. He revealed a few tidbits, again amusing, to such an inquiry in this response to one schoolboy’s need to know for his English assignment.
“The primary characteristic of my writing is something you’ll have to figure out yourself by reading it. I tend to write about myself. I seldom use a word or phrase from any language except English, because I don’t know any other language, and I don’t make any attempt to please the reader. ‘Basic likes and dislikes? Strong feelings for or against things?’ Well, it’s all in the books and if you’ve read them, you must have picked up a few hints. Every writer likes to think that he’s on the side of the angels and that he tilts against injustice, but you have to form your own opinions. I like inboard motors better than outboard motors—you can say that if you like, and I like sail better than power. I dearly love the natural world. You can always find out a few things about writers from biographical notes on book jackets, from prefaces, and from reference books in [the library], but the best way is to read their works. They always give themselves away sooner or later. I cannot out line my life briefly unless you pay me an enormous fee. It would take me months. I was born in 1899, and expect to live forever searching for beauty and raising hell in general…”

To another student who admitted to being a confused senior in high school, he replied:
“Dear Mr. Hudson,

I am a confused writer at 25 W. 43 rd St., and one of the reasons for my confusion is that students want me to explain myself. I can’t explain myself. Everything about me is mysterious to me, and I do not make any very strong effort to solve the puzzle. If you are engaged in writing a theme about my works, I think your best bet is to read them and say what you think about them. The question of style is a vexing one always. No sensible writer sets out deliberately to develop a style, but all writers do have distinguishing qualities and they become very evident when you read the words. Take Hemingway and Willa Cather, two well-known American novelists. The first is extremely self-conscious and puts himself into every sentence and every situation, the second is largely self-effacing and loses herself completely in the lives of her characters. Sorry not to give you more assistance, but you can appreciate my predicament.


E. B. White”

And some further gems:
“My theory of communication is different from yours. I think there is only one frequency and that the whole problem is to establish communication with oneself 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.”
“I don’t know which makes me more miserable: writing, or being unable to write. Both are bad.”
“I did my dropping out after I graduated. I worked in job after job in New York, unhappy and ineffective, and finally chucked life’s race for awhile, got into a Model T Ford and headed west with another fellow who also felt disconsolate. I stayed out for about a year-and- a-half and have never regretted a minute of it. I’m glad you’re back to college, though, as I strongly believe in the health-giving quality of finishing what one begins. If you have no deep feeling for literature and no burning desire to express yourself in writing, you’re probably in the same boat with about 75% of all the English majors in America, so I wouldn’t let it worry you too much. In my case, I majored in English partly because I didn’t know what else to do, but mostly because I did have a strong tendency to write. I was a writing fool when I was 11 years old and have been tapering off ever since. Because of this desire to write, I was one of the lucky ones. It ought to cheer you up, though, to know that my interest in the world’s great literature was woefully anemic. I got very little out of my courses, didn’t understand half of what I read, skimmed whenever I could, did rather badly, and came away from Cornell without a solid education and have never got round to correcting this deficiency. Primarily my interest was in journalism and most of my life has been spent in that arena, tilting at the dragons and clowning with the clowns. Even at Cornell most of my time was spent getting out the daily newspaper. I know just how you feel, Judy, frustration is youth’s middle name and you mustn’t worry too much about it. Eventually things clarify themselves and life begins to divulge a steadier destination. In a way, our lives take form through a simple process of elimination. We discard what we don’t like, walk away from what fails to inspirit us…Your majoring in English was not a mistake even though you do not become a critic or a publisher’s assistant, or a playwright, or a novelist. English and English literature are the rock bottom of our lives no matter what we do—and we should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry. To effect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts…”
”I would imagine that any human being is a fit subject for a biography, given a biographer of sufficient power.”
“I write largely for myself and am content to believe that what is good enough for me is good enough for the youngster.”
“You ask me about writing and how to do it. There is no trick to it. If you like to write and want to write, you write—no matter where you are or what else you’re doing or whether anyone pays any heed. I must have written half a million words…before I had anything published…You ask, ‘who cares?’ everybody cares; “it’s been written before,-- everything has been written before…”

I’m so glad he didn’t let that cynical phrase keep him from doing what he loved, so that the rest of us could grow up with Fern and Charlotte and Wilbur and Louis and Stuart.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Me too... glad he imagined Charlotte and her web. Really good post so I am getting this book from the library. I love letters. Also getting a book of his essays. I have read his book on New York too.

  2. Okay. I'm hooked. Off to the library to get me some White. :)

    1. Kimberlee,

      His letters reveal his strengths and weaknesses, but are also just interesting from the standpoint of American history and culture in the 20th century. Enjoy.