I finally finished a big fat book called Letters of E. B. White, Revised Edition. I’ve been reading it, on and off (as letters should be read), for about six weeks. It’s been like oatmeal to me—sweet, wholesome, gentle. I would usually read some just before bed.
It comes through glaringly obvious through his letters that White was a natural writer. I wish I had the knack for letter-writing that he had. You can tell when you read them that he simply enjoyed telling—anything, really. I love the little details he throws into any letter. For example, his “thank-you notes” would have a paragraph about how much he delights in the gift someone had sent, and then a paragraph on what his geese had been doing lately, or something funny he had read in the paper that morning. He put a little of himself in every little note or letter (well, at least the ones that got included here!). It made me embarrassed to think of my stingy little communications. I’m always saving up anything interesting I have to tell for my blog or for a poem, or at least for my journal, instead of scattering them freely in my correspondence.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know until I read this that E. B. White was involved in the early days of the New Yorker. Whaddya know. (I really like the New Yorker, by the way. Wish I could afford to subscribe. Can’t say that I enjoy the poetry they publish, though.)
So here are a few tidbits from the book:
On predicting the future (or assessing one’s own gifts):
“Not being an imaginative person essentially I haven’t much hope of turning out a real book that children will enjoy” (p. 185).
“But there is much that can be taught about rights and about liberty, including the basic stuff: right derives from a responsibileness, and that men become free as they become willing to accept restrictions on their acts” (395).
On freedom of expression
“My uneasiness about modern writing is not because of its being experimental but because of its abandonment of the responsibility of good taste and its acceptance of the inevitability of complete disclosure. This I find worrisome. When freedom of expression is abused, and things become disgusting, then freedom of expression is endangered” (502).
“The book [Trumpet of the Swan] is too long—which is my fault; I haven’t the time to write short these days” (551).
“A good poem is like an anchovy: it makes you want another right away and pretty soon the tin is empty and you have a bellyache or a small bone in your throat or both” (558).
On how hard writing is:
“The creative life is hell more than half the time, riddled with trials and terrors, and paved with woe” (570).