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E.B. White on Idea-Incubation and the Two Faces of Discipline

How to ride the “wave of emotion” in creative work on a raft of conscientious revision.

“One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it … [but] another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination,” Simone Weil wrote in contemplating the key to discipline in 1933. Indeed, fruitful creative work — especially writing — is predicated on this porous relationship between structure and spontaneity, discipline and imaginative freedom. That’s what E.B. White (July 11, 1899–October 1, 1985) addresses in his contribution to the fantastic volume The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — a compendium of wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with literary legends like Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, and William Styron.

In the same superb 1969 conversation that gave us White’s wisdom on how to write for children and the writer’s responsibility to society, he considers the question of discipline in writing:

There are two faces to discipline. If a man (who writes) feels like going to a zoo, he should by all means go to a zoo. He might even be lucky, as I once was when I paid a call at the Bronx Zoo and found myself attending the birth of twin fawns. It was a fine sight, and I lost no time writing a piece about it. The other face of discipline is that, zoo or no zoo, diversion or no diversion, in the end a man must sit down and get the words on paper, and against great odds. This takes stamina and resolution. Having got them on paper, he must still have the discipline to discard them if they fail to measure up; he must view them with a jaundiced eye and do the whole thing over as many times as is necessary to achieve excellence, or as close to excellence as he can get. This varies from one time to maybe twenty.

But this discipline of discarding mediocrity in the editing process must be preceded by the appropriate gestational period for ideas, or what T.S. Eliot called “a long incubation.” White reflects on his own experience of “sneezing” Charlotte’s Web:

When I finished Charlotte’s Web, I put it away, feeling that something was wrong. The story had taken me two years to write, working on and off, but I was in no particular hurry. I took another year to rewrite it, and it was a year well spent. If I write something and feel doubtful about it, I soak it away. The passage of time can be a help in evaluating it. But in general, I tend to rush into print, riding a wave of emotion.

And yet even this “wave of emotion” — which the perhaps more coolly rational Virginia Woolf famously called “a wave in the mind” — must be ridden on the raft of revision:

I revise a great deal. I know when something is right because bells begin ringing and lights flash. I’m not at all sure what the “necessary equipment” is for a writer [but] I do think the ability to evaluate one’s own stuff with reasonable accuracy is a helpful piece of equipment.

Complement with the cognitive science of the perfect writing routine and Anna Deavere Smith on what discipline means for an artist, then revisit this evolving library of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers and White’s warm letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

Published May 1, 2015




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