There is no separation between art and life in my book. I’m always seeing the world through the eyes of what I’m working on. In writing my biography Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White, I had the pleasure and privilege of reading everything he wrote, as well as listening to his three children’s books in my car for the better part of three years. It was an education, and an inspiration. There is much to admire about White and his writings. In the end, the essence of White to my mind was his sense of freedom, and the conviction for living life on his own terms. He personified what President Kennedy wrote in a speech celebrating the role of the artist: “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”
When Francine invited me to create a blog post I suggested: “10 things I learned from E.B. White” (even though there were scores of things I learned from him). Then I remembered towards the end of Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte had laid 514 eggs, and since 5+1+4=10, hence the organization for this piece.
Here is just a handful of White’s many words of wisdom:
1. “I think the best writing is often done by persons who are snatching the time from something else…”
Sometimes taking a walk, deadheading the flowers, or jotting down something that comes to me in a flash is still part of “working.” It’s all another form of thinking.
2. “Work from a suitable design”
Finding the design not just the writing, but the merging of words and pictures, is the best part of designing a book. Once I discover and decide on the “scaffolding,” the elements begin to fall into place. In Some Writer!, the hierarchy was first my text, then White’s quotes with illustrations, and finally the merging of archival photos, manuscript pages, and White’s ephemera. Creating the book was akin to inventing a three–dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
3. “I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.”
White left New York City and the The New Yorker, as well as fame and notoriety, to live in Maine, a place that had inspired him since childhood. While living on his farm, he wrote essays for Harper’s Magazine that became a collection of some his finest writings: One Man’s Meat.He also penned Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan, to name a few. Just as important as loving where we live is carving out a space and time to work. John Updike wrote, “Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say -- or more -- a day to write." Even an hour a day adds up.
4. “I like to read books on dog training….to me a book on dog discipline becomes a volume of inspired humor. Every sentence is a riot.”
Why throw a wrench in the middle of deadlines when everything is going pretty well? In a fit of madness, or just to keep things interesting, we got a purebred shepherd puppy– I wasn’t looking for either. We named her Ruby. She continues to remind me not to take myself so seriously and that I need fresh air and exercise. For Ruby, life is a ball, and it might as well be the same for me, too. As White once wrote, “A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature.” Ruby is both. (With apologies to White’s famous line regarding Charlotte).
5. “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.”
This says it all. Could crafting a book with this advice be that simple? Yes, along with the other bit of advice.
When I wrote my first book, Carmine: A Little More Red, I had Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on my desk and referred to it constantly. By the time I began writing Some Writer!, I realized I had about seven copies of that book between my home and studio. It was the book that helped me understand White’s process.
1. A nod to another great writer…
Author John McPhee, a New Yorker contributor, is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. In his book, DRAFT #4, McPhee’s essays are a collection of writing advice that is fun and informative to read, as are all his books. Writing a biography of E. B. White was a gigantic undertaking, not just because he is one of our most beloved writers but the sheer volume of research that had to be read, sifted through, and organized. The following quote by McPhee is sage advice for choosing the content of a biography (and writing in general):
“What is creative about nonfiction?…here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece…the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material…. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.” –– John McPhee
1. “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”
Dr. Dorian said this in Charlotte’s Web. White once watched a spider spinning an egg sac in the doorway of his barn, and the rest is history. It could be, as Mary Oliver writes, that “paying attention is the beginning of devotion.” Indeed.
2. “Omit needless words.”
This rule from the Elements of Style is a favorite. By editing and rewriting, we find clarity and simplicity. White goes on to write: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” And in conclusion: “There you have a short valuable essay on the nature and beauty of brevity– sixty-three words that could change the world.”
3. “Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication.”
All art is a form of communication. White wrote tens of thousands of letters in his lifetime. An invaluable exercise that lots of writers have used as a way of limbering up (myself included), is writing a letter, a postcard, or a thank you note. Try writing by hand or on an old typewriter. Why not email? Because doing something by hand slows us down, helps our mind become in synch with our hand, not to mention the recipient will receive a memorable gift in the mail. Also, a book titled, The Collected Emails of (insert name here) may not capture our imagination.
4. “A person who is looking for something doesn’t travel very fast.”
Stuart Little knew this. His quest was more important than the destination. You’re going artistically, and otherwise, write on!You are no doubt heading in the right direction.