E.B. White (on writing, taste & popularity)

“The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy himself,
and the true writer always plays to an audience of one. Let him start sniffing the air, or glancing, at the Trend Machine, and he is as good as dead, although he may make a nice living.”

Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) was an American writer, editor and quiet man of letters. He was a cornerstone of The New Yorker magazine from nearly its beginning, and edited and updated his former Cornell professor William Strunk’s “little book” The Elements of Style, making it the last word in writing with succinctness, clarity and wit. (If you write and haven’t read it, you must do so today. It is brief, potent and shockingly enjoyable to read, and I should do it again.) By the way, he also wrote Charlotte’s Web, perhaps the most enduring piece of children’s fiction that we have, plus Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan.

I don’t want to be “as good as dead”, and I continue to write this odd collection of stuff that interests me. There’s even a book simmering on low heat, but it, too, is a strange brew. At the same time, I’m not totally opposed to making “a nice living” as a writer; in fact, I did, for a few anonymous and sometimes-satisfying years. I have a tiny presence on Twitter and pay attention to discussions of writers’ markets and publishing, hoping to get a little more clever about finding audiences for my work. Mr. White feels like a voice of warning. Be careful, young writer. (I think of myself as young, in at least this one regard.) That way lies madness. It’s the Writer Dance, and I’m learning how to do it.

What think ye, o readers few and dear?    

Comment (1)

  1. Michael Freeman

    Oh how I hated writing. Writing was a painful process, and I couldn’t figure out why I hated it so much. Until now. I was always doing stuff because someone else wanted me to, forced me to, or I just thought that I was supposed to. I hated doing those things because I could never figure out what I was supposed to do, who I was supposed to do it for or what the result or outcome should be.

    I am in a fledgling book club. We are reading Bev Sellars’s They Call Me Number One. Of the four members, two committed to the club, but never started; one started and completed 2 chapters but has questioned the effectiveness of the club since the first day; and me. I have committed, and I am going to read and respond as if there are still 4 people. I think it a worthy exercise; worthy of my reading of the book, worthy of my response to what I read, worthy of my writing about what gets stirred in me, and worthy of my sending the responses to the original 4.

    Laugh like no one is crying; dance like no one is watching; and sing like no one is listening. (My paraphrase.) I’d be a well and happy man. My issue with writing is that there was always someone crying, always someone listening and always someone watching, so I hated it.

    E.B. gets it right. “An audience of one.” My problem was recognizing that I mattered, that my opinion mattered, and that, quite frankly, it mattered more than what anyone else thought. But I couldn’t see that. “He is as good as dead!” Might just as well be. A puppet on strings is no way to live. If my only reason for writing is to get cash in hand, or accolades from my fans, then I will continue to be disappointed, and under-valued.

    Farley Mowat, I ain’t, but I shouldn’t try to be. I’m always impressed by the quotes used to open and close the cases of the Behavioral Assessment Unit on the TV show Criminal Minds. I write them down, so that I can ponder them later. Maybe if I thought and wrote every day, and didn’t worry so much about what other people thought of my writing, I would be able to write what I think, how I think, and mainly, because I think.

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