writing

the meaning of democracy

E. B. WHITE ON “THE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY”

This piece originally appeared in the Notes and Comment section of the July 3, 1943, issue of The New Yorker. “The 40s: The Story of a Decade,” an anthology of New Yorker articles, stories, and poems, will be released on Tuesday.

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

E. B. White

WHAT TO WRITE

Last week, in honor of the Brooklyn Book Festival, the author, essayist and journalist, Jill Dearman, re-published some of her interviews with Brooklyn authors from recent years. The funny thing about this was that in the very same week, I’d crossed paths with Jill after quite a few years, through our kids’ school and I’d said, “We used to know each other through our writing, perhaps the Brooklyn Writer’s Space, somewhere…..” In our early morning bus-stop encounter, neither one of us remembered this author interview we’d had about eight years earlier, before these bus-riders were even born.

Well, I really enjoyed reading these Brooklyn author interviews of Jill’s, and re-reading my own. One thing that jumped out at me, that I hadn’t remembered discussing with Jill, was that the author, Jeanette Winterson, is a writer who I consider an influence. Winterson is a diverse novelist, but what runs across all her fiction is surrealist poetic prose. I admire her literary acrobatics, her voice, and her skill. I also admire her subject choices. Every time a writer sets out to start a new long piece of fiction, there’s an infinite amount of possibilities akin to sky-diving at a frenetic speed, and trying to choose your next perch, a safe-landing, while your body whizzes past possibility after possibility. Before I jump, I have many conflicting thoughts, such as, I’m gonna choose something really commercial this time, I’m gonna do that young adult sci-fi idea, I’m gonna write that historical fiction book that requires five years of research, I’m gonna write a chapbook of poems about youth.

I harbor a secret belief that there’s a Jeanette Winterson novel in me that I haven’t had the courage to write. My apparent commitment to realism is overpowering for one thing. A lack of imagination, and my fear that I might have the imagination to start it, but how could I possibly sustain that level of imagination to finish it, is another obstacle. The reason I keep thinking about writing a surreal novel, in the style of a fairytale or allegory, aka a Jeanette Winterson novel, is that they are so divine to read. Her writing instigates my own imagination. She baffles and tosses around her reader into make-believe worlds that are fierce rivals of the real world I always depict in my own writing.

Lately, I have an urge to write in new genres. I’d like to work on poems, fairytales, short stories and this blog on the side of my latest novel endeavor. Maybe my Jeanette Winterson homage can get a little foothold on the page in one of these shorter forms, while I still grow the courage to make that big landing of a novel in a new and stranger voice.

A WRITING DAY

danny-shanahan-i-try-to-write-a-little-bit-every-day-new-yorker-cartoon

Tomorrow, a Wednesday in late July will be my first day of writing, an entire day for writing, in…..an immeasurable time. I used to write on Wednesdays and Saturdays as a regular schedule, and often micro sessions in between, before having a kid. Last year, I wrote on Wednesdays (my day off from my Department of Health job) until 2:30 when it was time to pick up my son, and often his friends, from pre-k. One unintended outcome of summer camp, is that my boy’s day goes until 4pm, and hour and a half that feels like a whole other day when you’re counting writing time.

For the last ten months I’ve been revising my second novel. The way I’ve come to sum up this revision is that I re-wrote the beginning, adding a new plot-line and substantially upping the stakes of the novel. Then I combed forward the revision, including the new story-line and revising what was already on the page to fold into the new story. Eventually, I hit a wall where the end needed to be re-written, and I’ve pushed through that wall recently. The very end of the novel holds up, but I think there will be about ten new pages blended in to make it more of a ….hugely-satisfying-culmination-like-feeling of- I’m so glad I read this totally original and illuminating book! Or something like that. I am now on page 219 of what I think will be a 235 page book. For me, that fact is breath-taking.

So, a full day of writing feels not only important and necessary (writing a book requires writing) but it also feels kind of revelatory, a gift, a reward, a huge symbol of good fortune. I guess I’m really happy I have a writing day tomorrow.

LENGTH AND STAKES

I know this from every long piece I’ve ever written. One hundred pages is your first real test. A novel allows for a lot of establishing, as well as unspooling backstory. The novel form unfolds and builds. That establishing and hopefully skillful doling-out of backstory can sustain a long momentum. But if your plot is not successfully moving forward and wholly satisfying the reader, this momentum will falter at a hundred pages. I experienced this when I wrote the first draft of my novel, The Sign for Drowning. Every single hair on my head was brown. I had only been an adult for six years. I was a writing innocent. I was intentionally writing a series of vignettes. Oh my. And things went along swimmingly- all my teachers and fellow grad students agreed- for a hundred pages. Wham. It took me about eight years to figure my way out of that lack of forward momentum. A couple of months ago, I reached page one hundred of my revision of my current novel. I wavered as I approached it. I looked in every direction for oncoming traffic intent to derail my project, and I found things were secure. The book, its plot, was solidly built and moving under its own force, and I was able to steer the narrative ahead. I passed. The book passed. About a week ago, I arrived at another junction. It happens to be page 160. I haven’t written quite enough novels to know if page 160 is a typical crossroads. But what happened here, this time, was about the higher stakes I’ve raised in my earliest chapters. The stakes are higher. This is very good news. The characters are going through harder, scarier, more threatening and immediate challenges. A gun in the first act….(actually there are guns) Higher stakes in the second chapter of this book require higher outcomes, starting on page 160 it so happens. I’ve been sitting here for about a week, wondering how to meet the stakes I’ve set up. The very end of the novel achieves what I want. But I’m not at the very end. I’m at the three-quarter mark perhaps and I sense the time is now to climb higher with the stress, the challenge, the total fear of my unwitting characters. They were pushed. They had a chance to equalize for a minute and re-group. I have to torture then again now. I’m trying to decide just how.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

9781594200694_custom-f03becf20830b170ef232802ff0e955a36b8ef02-s6-c30Turning to E.B. White for help with your writing is a double-edged sword. His advice is spot-on, unequivocal. Do it. Everything E. B. White has to say will improve your writing. However, read enough of his offerings from Elements of Style and you will soon grow to believe that you cannot do it. Writing that well, avoiding all those pitfalls- fatal missteps feels impossible. Now, if you’re reading this and you’re an arrogant writer, then go right ahead and dive into Elements of Style, and you’ll probably walk away thinking, I do all that already. As in all things arrogant, your thinking is misguided. You don’t, you’re wrong, and look again. Read one page of your writing and you’ll find these common weaknesses in style. When I read Elements of Style, I feel guilty of all he warns against. I’m pleased if I was at least already aware of the bad habit. There’s someone in my house who is obsessed with E.B. White. It’s not my four and a half year-old, although he is reading The Trumpet of the Swan.

We’ve always taken E.B. White very seriously in my household. When in doubt about creating straight-forward drama in our writing, my husband and I have turned to the first sentence of Charlotte’s Web more than once. “Where’s Pa going with that ax?” Recently, I sense we’re about to get way more steeped in him. As I write this, there are six of his books on my coffee table. I don’t want you to suffer vicariously from the notion that you just can’t do everything correctly, as he urges us to. So, I’ll share just a little of his sage advice. But trust, humble writer friends, there’s more good advice where this came from.

Write with nouns and verbs.

Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs. The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable parts of speech…In general, however, it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give good writing its toughness and color.

Do not overstate.

When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows it will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgement or your poise…..A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm.

POINT OF VIEW

POVI was scrolling through the photos on my phone when I came across this picture my four year-old son, Enrico took, unbeknownst to me. The first thing I thought when I saw this was: point of view. Before I noticed his shoes at the bottom, I knew I didn’t take the photo. There’s something “off” about the point of view. I couldn’t take this photo. I’m much taller and I would have straightened the frame.

I get a strong feeling from seeing Enrico’s point of view. I’m in his head, behind his eyes for the moment. For once, I’m not gazing on this room thinking of the tidying that’s needed. I sense his enjoyment of the rooms in the photo. Perhaps wondering what he’ll do next, when he puts down mom’s phone.

When I think of all the elements of fiction that one needs to get right to make any piece work, I’m nearly suffocating with stress and the impossibility of it all. Character, narrative drive, arc, plot, setting, language, voice and point of view, to name a few. It’s staggering. I suppose the more writing you do, the more these things happen naturally and they don’t have to be thought of with each and every sentence. But they do have to be worked on to some degree, often an extreme one that leaves me incapacitated and wanting just to retreat into great reading, or at least more caffeine.

Well, here’s to point of view. Next time I’m a bit immobilized by the work (is that what’s happening today?) I might just do a short exercise focusing on one darn thing: the skewed room with the little shoes at the bottom.

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