I don’t remember the first time I saw “Charlotte’s Web”.  It was as much a part of my childhood as “Wizard of Oz” or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.  My parents used to absolutely dread the announcement that “Charlotte’s Web” would be airing on a certain night.  I would look at them with delight in my eyes, excited over the prospect of seeing it again, never aware of their own sinking hearts.  Inevitably on the evening of the showing I would begin preparations, for in my childhood it was almost always shown on a Friday night.  I would get my pajama’s ready, pull out my backrest and set up my blankets on the floor.  My dad would make popcorn, putting them into separate bowls for each of us.  My parents would sit enthroned in their chairs, while I settled in the nest I had built.  I have only vague recollections of their even being present once the movie started.  I was full enraptured.  When the commercial breaks came, we would all jump up to get drinks or use the restroom.  Little did I know that as I was drawn in deeper and deeper into the story, my parents were watching me with concern.  For the longest time, I never really knew what the ending was like, for when Charlotte dies I would completely break down sobbing.  We aren’t talking about a few tears trickling down my face – we are talking about body shuddering gasps for air, full-blown expression of grief.  The first few showings, my parents were compassionate and tried to understand how their young daughter could be so broken up over a pig and a spider.  As the years passed, however, and my reaction never changed they would show concern over my psyche.   I thought maybe it was just the movie that affected me, and trying to protect my own children from the pain they might experience over it – I decided to read them the book.  Night after night we would read a chapter out of the book by E. B. White.  I felt good about reading them a contemporary classic, and they seemed to enjoy it enough to ask for it the next night.  As we came closer to the end, I have to admit that I didn’t approach it with trepidation.  I actually felt confident that in the reading of this story I would be able to protect my own fragile emotions.  I was certain I would be able to handle it.  As Charlotte weakened at the fair, the words became difficult to read.  I had to blink rapidly as Wilbur went about not aware that his best friend was dying.  I was reading the story slower and slower.  Instead of my children calmly lying in their beds listening, the pauses and breaks in my voice made them look at me with concern.  I was successful in one thing – my children were not affected the same way through the reading of the story that I was.  However, as Charlotte died – I broke down sobbing.  My husband had to come in the room and take over.  I fear my children are probably scarred for life.   I can just see them years from now “Yeah, my Mom was just reading me a bedtime story one day and then she CRIED, man.  It was horrible and ugly.  I have nightmares over it.”

The purpose of this particular post is not to delve into the psychological intricacies of my mind – as much as some of you are probably itching to do at this moment.  It all came welling up over an interview I read with E. B. White.  If you recall (those of you who have been with me since the beginning) my first book on writing was “The Elements of Style” co-authored by E. B. White.  I didn’t put two and two together at that time – my attachment to E. B. White, in the way he makes me react.  It was upon reading this interview, that I found I really wished I had known him.  I don’t believe that merely summarizing the interview would do him justice. I’m not going to share with you the entire interview,

(you can find it at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4155/the-art-of-the-essay-no-1-e-b-white) but I will share with you the few questions and answers that struck me.  If you are still looking into insights into my character, this might answer some big questions.

INTERVIEWER

At what age did you know you were going to follow a literary profession? Was there a particular incident, or moment?

WHITE

I never knew for sure that I would follow a literary profession. I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight before anything happened that gave me any assurance that I could make a go of writing. I had done a great deal of writing, but I lacked confidence in my ability to put it to good use.

INTERVIEWER

Were you a voracious reader during your youth?

WHITE

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read… My reading habits have not changed over the years, only my eyesight has changed. I don’t like being indoors and get out every chance I get. In order to read, one must sit down, usually indoors. I am restless and would rather sail a boat than crack a book. I’ve never had a very lively literary curiosity, and it has sometimes seemed to me that I am not really a literary fellow at all. Except that I write for a living.

INTERVIEWER

Although you say you are “not really a literary fellow at all,” have you read any books, say in the past ten years, that deeply impressed you?

WHITE

I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all. As for what comes out on paper, I’m not well equipped to speak about it. When I should be reading, I am almost always doing something else. It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any warm-up exercises to get going?

WHITE

Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.

INTERVIEWER

Since your interest with Strunk on style, have there been any other such books you would recommend?

WHITE

I’m not familiar with books on style. My role in the revival of Strunk’s book was a fluke—just something I took on because I was not doing anything else at the time. It cost me a year out of my life, so little did I know about grammar.

INTERVIEWER

Is style something that can be taught?

WHITE

I don’t think it can be taught. Style results more from what a person is than from what he knows.

INTERVIEWER

Is there any shifting of gears in writing such children’s books as Charlottes Web andStuart Little? Do you write to a particular age group?

WHITE

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.

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 Charlottes Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

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.

INTERVIEWER

What is it, do you think, when you try to write an English sentence at this date, that causes you to “fly into a thousand pieces”? Are you still encouraged (as Ross once wrote you after reading a piece of yours) “to go on”?

WHITE

It isn’t just “at this date”—I’ve always been unstable under pressure. When I start to write, my mind is apt to race, like a clock from which the pendulum has been removed. I simply can’t keep up, with pen or typewriter, and this causes me to break apart. I think there are writers whose thoughts flow in a smooth and orderly fashion, and they can transcribe them on paper without undue emotion or without getting too far behind. I envy them. When you consider that there are a thousand ways to express even the simplest idea, it is no wonder writers are under a great strain. Writers care greatly how a thing is said—it makes all the difference. So they are constantly faced with too many choices and must make too many decisions.

I am still encouraged to go on. I wouldn’t know where else to go.

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