Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘writing’

26 FEBRUARY, 2015

E.B. White on How to Write for Children and the Writer’s Responsibility to All Readers

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“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

The loving and attentive reader of children’s books knows that the best of them are not one-dimensional oversimplifications of life but stories that tackle with elegant simplicity such complexities as uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and the cycle of life. And anyone who sits with this awareness for a moment becomes suddenly skeptical of the very notion of a “children’s” book. Maurice Sendak certainly knew that when he scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Seven decades earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien had articulated the same sentiment, with more politeness and academic rigor, in his terrific essay on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” But one of the finest, most charming and most convincing renunciations of the myths about writing for children comes from E.B. White, nearly two decades after he sneezed Charlotte’s Web.

In a 1969 interview, included in the altogether unputdownable The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — which also features wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with Haruki Murakami, Maya Angelou, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, William Styron and more — White turns his formidable amalgam of wit and wisdom to our culture’s limiting misconceptions about storytelling “for children.”

When the interviewer asks whether there is “any shifting of gears” in writing children’s books, as opposed to the grownup nonfiction for which he is best known, White responds with the rare combination of conviction and nuance:

Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Echoing Ursula Nordstrom — the visionary editor and patron saint of childhood who brought to life not only Charlotte’s Web but also such classics as Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Giving Tree, and who famously insisted that children never want a blunt creative edge — White adds:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process. Click image for more.

Long before psychologists knew that language is central to how human imagination evolves, White is especially adamant about the blunting of language:

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

Like C.S. Lewis, who contemplated what writing for children reveals about the key to authenticity in all writing, White extrapolates the writer’s responsibility to all audiences:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter… A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

[…]

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.

The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV is a treasure trove in its totality. Complement this particular gem with E.B. White on the future of reading, what makes a great city, his satirical take on the difference between love and passion, and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in life.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2015

Virginia Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt

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Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

“Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Charles Bukowski lamented in an interview. Self-doubt is a familiar state for all who put pieces of their inner lives into the outside world — that is, for all artists. “Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical,” Anna Deavere Smith counseled in her indispensable Letters to a Young Artist. And yet, integral as it may be to the creative experience by offering an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art, self-doubt isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we run from it, we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules of writing.

But hardly anyone has captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt — which is part of the artist’s universal and necessary dance with fear — better than Virginia Woolf, she of enduring wisdom on creativity and consciousness and the challenge of writing about the soul.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 novel, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process, rendering in spectacular relief the particular granularity familiar to writers:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit this evolving library of great writers’ wisdom on writing.

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19 FEBRUARY, 2015

How to Read Intelligently and Write a Great Essay: Robert Frost’s Letter of Advice to His Young Daughter

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“The sidelong glance is what you depend on.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White wrote in the foreword to his collected essays. Annie Dillard sees things almost the opposite way, insisting that essayists perform a public service — they “serve as the memory of a people” and “chew over our public past.” Although he had never written an essay himself, the advice Pulitzer-winning poet Robert Frost (March 26, 1874–January 29, 1963) offered to his eldest daughter, Lesley, not only stands as an apt mediator between White and Dillard but also some of the most enduring wisdom on essay-writing ever committed to paper.

During her junior at Amherst College, Lesley shared her exasperation over having been assigned to write an academic essay about a book she didn’t find particularly inspiring. In a magnificent letter from February of 1919, found in The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1 (public library), the beloved poet gave his daughter sage counsel on her particular predicament, emanating general wisdom on writing, the art of the essay, and even thinking itself.

Five years before he received the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes, 45-year-old Frost writes:

I pity you, having to write essays where the imagination has no chance, or next to no chance. Just one word of advice: Try to avoid strain or at any rate the appearance of strain. One way to go to work is to read your author once or twice over having an eye out for anything that occurs to you as you read whether appreciative contradictory corroborative or parallel…

He speaks to the notion that writing, like all creativity, is a matter of selecting the few thrilling ideas from the lot of dull ones that occur to us — “To invent… is to choose,” as French polymath Henri Poincaré famously proclaimed. Frost counsels:

There should be more or less of a jumble in your head or on your note paper after the first time and even after the second. Much that you will think of in connection will come to nothing and be wasted. But some of it ought to go together under one idea. That idea is the thing to write on and write into the title at the head of your paper… One idea and a few subordinate ideas — [the trick is] to have those happen to you as you read and catch them — not let them escape you… The sidelong glance is what you depend on. You look at your author but you keep the tail of your eye on what is happening over and above your author in your own mind and nature.

The Frost family in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, 1915: Elinor and Robert, Lesley and Irma, Marjorie and Carol (University of Virginia Library)

Reflecting on his days as an English teacher at New Hampshire’s Pinkerton Academy, Frost points to precisely this over-and-above quality as the factor that set apart the few of his students who mastered the essay from the vast majority of those who never did. (Although by the time of his tenure the Academy officially accepted young women, Frost’s passing remark that his class consisted of sixty boys reveals a great deal about women’s plight for education.) He writes:

They seem incapable of the over-and-above stuff. I think maybe it goes on in their heads as they read but they are incapable of catching it. They are too directly intent on the reading. They cant get started looking two ways at once. I think too they are afraid of the simplicity of many things they think on the side as they read. They wouldn’t have the face to connect it in writing with the great author they have been reading. It may be a childhood memory; it may be some homely simile; it may be a line or verse of mother goose. They want it to be big and bookish. But they haven’t books enough in their heads to match book stuff with book stuff. Of course some of that would be all right.

Indeed, in many ways Frost’s advice on essay-writing is really advice on reading — that mutuality of thought between reader and writer, pulsed through by the book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another.” Echoing Virginia Woolf’s dictum on how to read a book, Frost offers counsel so passionate that it becomes almost a stream-of-consciousness prose poem, barely punctuated:

The game is matching your author thought for thought in any of the many possible ways. Reading then becomes converse — give and take. It is only conversation in which the reader takes part addressing himself to anything at all in the author in his subject matter or form. Just as when we talk together! Being careful to hold up our end and to do our part agreeably without too much contradiction and mere opinionation. The best thing of all is going each other one better piling up the ideas anecdotes and incidents like alternating hands piled up on the knee. Well its out of conversation like this with a book that you find perhaps one idea perhaps yours perhaps the book’s that will serve for other lesser ideas to center around. And there’s your essay.

He lands from this poetic elation into some practical advice:

Be brief at first. You have to be honest. You don’t want to make your material seem more than it is. You won’t have so much to say at first as you will have later. My defect is in not having learned to hammer my material into one lump. I haven’t had experience enough. The details of essay won’t come in right for me as they will in narrative. Sometimes I have gotten round the difficulty by some narrative dodge.

[…]

Take it easy with the essay whatever you do. Write it as well as you can if you have to write it. Be as concrete as the law allows in it — concrete and experiential. Don’t let it scare you. Don’t strain. Remember that any old thing that happens in your head as you read may be the thing you want. If nothing much seems to happen, perhaps another reading will help. Perhaps the book is bad or is not your kind — is nothing to you and can start nothing in your nature one way or another.

He interjects a meta-remark on the nature — and naturalness — of the essay form:

Of course this letter is essay. It is material that has come to the surface of my mind in reading just as frost brings stones to the surface of the ground.

At the very end, before signing off “Affectionately Papa,” Frost can’t resist taking a little jab at the essay, voicing the sentiment that seems to explain his own lifelong resistance to partaking in the genre:

I don’t know you know whether its worth very much — I mean the essay — when you have it written. I’m rather afraid of it as an enemy to the really creative writing that holds scenes and things in the eye voices in the ear and whole situations as a sort of plexus in the body (I don’t know just where).

Robert Frost with his daughter Lesley (left) and her two children, 1945

Lesley grew up to be an author herself, albeit not of essays — she published two books of stories for children: Really Not Really in 1962, published mere months before her father’s death, and Digging Down to China in 1968.

In its portly 850-page totality, The Letters of Robert Frost is a trove of writerly wisdom and heartwarming parental advice to the poet’s six children, of whom Lesley and her sister Irma outlived their father. Complement it with Frost’s beautiful poem on art and government, which he intended to but didn’t read at JFK’s inauguration, and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing in a letter of advice to his own daughter, then revisit this growing library of writers’ advice on writing.

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