My Simon and Garfunkel Pandora station combines with the gray rain/mist outside and leaves me mildly depressed.
This should open an opportunity for writing. Good writing comes from tortured restless minds. I love the poetry of sorrow. Paul Simon, TS Eliot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Their introspection is universal. They write about alienation, but the writing connects them with the world and the alienation that we all feel. We are together in our loneliness.
Speaking of good writing and introspection, I have a new writing role model: E.B. White. Of course I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little as a kid. Now I’ve begun reading a collection of his essays. Many of them were written while White worked for The New Yorker. White managed to maintain both city life and country life. He went between New York and Maine as only a man of his wealth could. He was successful, well-off and known. But he wrote for every man. He did it simply by writing honestly about himself. All he needed was the magic of observation. He didn’t write to impress anyone, and so he wrote with authority and without pretense. And it is impressive. He’s at once funny, reflective, and so relatable. When I’m reading E.B. White, I feel he’s like me. And so I hope to be like him.
I often worry that my writing is too introspective. That’s a nice way of saying I’m self-absorbed and out of touch with the world at large. As a journalist (which I can scarcely claim to be), I know this is a bad thing. As a writer striving to be genuine, I wonder if I can work it for good. Enter the essay. It focuses with a very narrow lens. If it succeeds, the narrow lens of the essay captures a microcosm of something much bigger than the subject. I look at my writing style and I fear I’m too arrogant. Who will care about these things? And then I read White’s foreword to his essay collection. Some excerpts:
“The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work… Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays… The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe: he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter – philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast. I like the essay, have always liked it, and even as a child was at work, attempting to inflict my young thoughts and experiences on others by putting them on paper.”
This is what I want to do. If it is possible to be humble and proud at once, I think the essay is the medium for it. I humbly acknowledge that I could fail at it. My writing might not resonate. In order to produce one good essay, I will likely write 10 or even 100 bad essays. But the only prayer for success is to write each one with the boldness of belief that it will be profound. If I don’t believe it matters, no readers will, either. One of my best writing professors, Berkley Hudson, stressed the importance of bad writing. You must write every day, and you must get the bad writing out there before the good writing can come. The best writers are not afraid of failure. Failure is a key part of success.
White went on in his foreword to say that even with the essay’s lack of form, it has its own rules and problems. Not everyone can do it. He also said the essay will never garner the acclaim of other writing forms. It is a form for the writer who wants to “ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfaction of a somewhat undisciplined existence.”Undisciplined is not a word I would use to describe White’s essay style.
Sadly, I’ve benefited greatly from Borders going out of business. Everything was 60 – 90% off. I bought Essays of E.B. White, 50 Essays: A Portable Anthology (2nd Edition), Stones into Schools, Final Jeopardy (for my dad), On the Edge of Survival (also mostly for my dad), Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (because Anne Lamotte is great), and The Gospel according to LOST (I was just too fascinated to pass it up). All these for a mere $40. Hurray books! Life is rich.