On Paying Attention to E.B. White

EBWhite“It is quite possible that an animal has spoken to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention” from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

My mother was a second grade teacher.  Her favorite time of year was when she read Charlotte’s Web to her class.  With 21 chapters and twenty 8-year-olds, it must have taken fortitude and at least a month’s time.  Every afternoon at the appointed time she pulled out the book.  And every year (spoiler alert) when Charlotte died, she cried.

When I had children my Mom nagged me to read Charlotte’s Web to them, or The Trumpet of the Swan.  As some foolish new mothers do, I resisted her suggestion.  At some point though, I succumbed and made the nightly commitment to one book.  This would be a bigger deal than Goodnight Moon.  It was a “real” book and I wouldn’t skip a few pages at a time when I thought they were half asleep.  So I read The Trumpet of the Swan to both when they were about 4.  My daughter remembers.  My son, “vaguely”.

Years later when my Mom died I was unable to read for months.  The risk of feeling was too dangerous.  I was unwilling to be touched by a book.  And then one day I decided to re-read Charlotte’s Web.  Perhaps I could rekindle connection to my mother or maybe insight would be revealed to help me with my grief.  What I found were words to share with my family when we buried her ashes.  I wanted to create a memory and E.B. White helped:

“Charlotte,” said Wilbur after a while, “why are you so quiet?””I like to sit still,” she said. “I’ve always been rather quiet.””Yes, but you seem specially so today. Do you feel all right?””A little tired, perhaps. But I feel peaceful. Your success in the ring this morning was, to a small degree, my success. Your future is assured. You will live, secure and safe, Wilbur. Nothing can harm you now. These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world, for you mean a great deal to Zuckerman and he will not harm you, ever. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. Then song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy…

Won’t it be wonderful to be back home in the barn cellar again with the sheep and the geese? Aren’t you anxious to get home?”For a moment Charlotte said nothing. Then she spoke in a voice so low Wilbur could hardly hear the words.

“I will not be going back to the barn,” she said.


Fast forward four years and I am trying to write.  It is new to me.  Apparently, any writer worth their salt is familiar with the classic guide On Writing Well by William Zinnser.  Like I said, it’s new to me.  The book is funny, inspiring and instructional (When talking about clutter in writing he writes “’Experiencing’ is one of the worst clutterers.  Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain.  If  he had his own kid in the chair he would say ‘Does it hurt?’” Funny!). Zinnser introduces the book by describing a photograph of E.B. White writing at a plain wooden table in a boathouse.  The picture reflects  “the simplicity of the process”.  Not that good writing is simple to do.  But that the process is to simplify your writing, editing over and over.  The photograph  is lovely.  I downloaded  it last night as a screen saver.

Today, looking for inspiration, I picked up A Year of Writing Dangerously: 365 Days of Inspiration and Encouragement  by Barbara Abercrombie.  I found on Day 19: “ You might want to take another look at E.B. White’s list of 21 reminders about style in The Elements of Style.  It is the most complete and eloquent writing lesson you will ever have.” There he is again, and so I must.

In my mucking around and paying attention, I found direction.  There are guides and concrete ways to improve.  I will take on White’s style book and his essays, in a less sentimental way, in a way that helps to learn a craft.  But I will still  hope  “Charlotte” is looking over my shoulder.

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