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E. B. White and the plumber

By the NoseIn December of 1930, E. B. White wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the garbageman. “They have the town by the tail and they know it,” White concluded, after a brief study of the can collector’s habits. We like to watch the trashman too, the descendants of White’s subjects, wrestling now with new regulations, recycling, knowledge of toxic waste, but still masters of noise and dust, their barking trucks heard for blocks, avalanches of glass announcing last call for trash. But while today’s garbageman may still have the city by the tail, surely it’s the plumber has it by the nose.

 

My father was a plumber, and asked us to join him in the trade; shucks, I wanted to continue school. But I worked with him summers and accompanied him on enough evening calls to achieve a kind of apprentice status. A neighbor would knock, a friend would call, a parishioner, a friend of a friend – a brief diagnosis on the phone and I was told which tools to grab from the garage and we were off, a doctor making a house call. Dad almost never accepted money for these evening jobs. He would accept a beer, sit, and talk.

 

No job was too awful, foul, or hard. With his bare hands he swept away monstrous crawl space spiders, reached into cold plugged up toilet bowls, chiseled oakum into cast iron joints – which I sometimes got to pour the molten lead into with the long handled ladle from the boiling pot. Our antagonists were usually stripped threads, worn washers, busted pipes, and all manner of backened slop. Dad did not relish repair work; by day he was a new construction plumber, working with new parts, not used. What he did relish was the opportunity to get out of the house and talk to people. He was the James Joyce of the plumbing trade. He could talk to anyone, for he had them, and he knew it, by the nose.

 

Time passing and enter George, the veteran plumber we now call when wet to the knees and elbows but I still can’t fix it. We called George recently to help us with a pipe cracked during the big freeze and snows. After the job we sat with George in the living room; he did most of the talking, and we listened. Before the pipe broke, I had been reading E. B. White, but after George left, I let E. B. sit, and I paused to think of my father, the plumber, and my decision to continue school.

A word of one’s own

faculty-photo-1976Comfortably ensconced in our reading lair, hidden behind the arras of the Dec. 8 New Yorker, perusing the cartoons, time passing easily, and find our Eric has been at work on his French, annotating the Mankoff cartoon caption “A la Recherche des Cheveux Perdus” (p. 68) with the translation “Remember Hair Lost.”

What is past is lost, but still we recall – writing is a lure; reading, a way of walking.

Menand, Jan. 5: “Feiffer’s strips are about borrowed ways of talking, about the lack of fit between people and words, about the way that clichés take over” (p. 43).

Blake: “No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Proverbs of Hell”).

Nabokov: “…minor readers like to recognize their own ideas in a pleasing disguise” (Lectures on Literature, “Good Writers and Good Readers,” p. 2).

In Nabokov’s teaching copies, his annotations include his own translations; in his copy of  “The Metamorphosis,” for example, he substitutes the Muirs’s “uneasy dreams” with “a troubled dream,” and “a gigantic insect” with “a monstrous insect” (p. 250). Monstrous means marvelous and strange, and Nabokov starts his students off with a different view of Gregor, beginning with Kafka’s first sentence.

Woody Allen: “Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick” (Annie Hall).

For Nabokov, reading meant rereading in excruciating detail, never straying from the text, bringing to exact light and color the watermarks of the text, like working a coloring book.

As for the uneasy, or troubled, dreams, Kafka reveals in the second paragraph that “It was no dream.”

But one’s own words? Where does one find them? Sometimes a word of one’s own seems no more possible than a room of one’s own. For some answers, we might turn again to E. B. White’s Elements of Style, where we are warned to “Write in a way that comes naturally”; “Avoid fancy words”; and “Avoid foreign languages” (Chapter V).

As for using words of one’s own to find lost time, Nabokov says: “…to recreate the past something other than the operation of memory must happen: there must be a combination of a present sensation (especially taste, smell, touch, sound) with a recollection, a remembrance, of the sensuous past” (p. 249). It took Proust 1.5 million words to illustrate that we are “…not free…to choose memories from the past for scrutiny” (Nabokov, p. 248).

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

Maybe Higgins wanting to read aloud is explained by Annie Dillard’s claim that “The written word is weak” (p. 17). Yet for Dillard writing is a trade, like carpentry, or plumbing, hard work. The writer is a day laborer, digging a ditch, head down, not looking at anything, the ditch caving in, dirt falling back in with every shovelful pulled out. Dillard’s book is more lyrical than the books on writing by Higgins and Stegner, figurative, full of metaphorical explanations. But she affirms that writing is hard work. Here’s an example that illustrates how hard, in her figurative style: “Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over” (p. 75).

“Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” Roger Angell tells us in the foreword to the fourth edition of The Elements of Style, the E. B. White classic. Stegner politely offered that writing is hard work; Higgins gave the sentiment a powerful place in his book. 

And Annie Dillard agrees: “It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years” (p. 13). She points out a few exceptions, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: “…in six weeks; he claimed he knocked it off in his spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job performing manual labor” (p. 13). We get the point; Faulkner embodied the idea of the exception. But like Higgins, Annie doesn’t want us paddling out short of wax, so she repeats and clarifies: “Writing a book, full time, takes between two and ten years…On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away” (p. 14).

But hard how? “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark” (p. 26). We see Annie in some of her writing hideaways, and while the locations look like vacation spots, she convinces us that writing is hard mainly because of the isolation, the solitude, the boring act of sitting. “I write this in the most recent of my many studies – a pine shed on Cape Cod. The pine lumber is unfinished inside the study…” an 8 by 10 shed, “Like a plane’s cockpit…” (p. 25). The plane motif introduced here foreshadows the last chapter, devoted to a stunt flying ace Annie met and went up with but who later crashes – and flying solo in a small plane performing tricks above the heads of an audience becomes an extended metaphor for writing. Then she’s in another cabin, this time on Haro Strait, in Puget Sound, where “The cabin was a single small room near the water” (p. 41). 

In fact, “It should surprise no one that the life of the writer – such as it is – is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world” (p. 44). No doubt, yet it’s still somehow difficult to square this writing is hard, lonely work business with “During some of the long, empty months at work on the book, I was living in a one-room log cabin on an empty beach” (48). Add a little sun and a few waves and what’s the problem? Of course, we wouldn’t get much writing down.  

Dillard knew “a joyful painter” who became a painter because “He said, ‘I liked the smell of the paint'” (p. 70). It’s apparently not as easy to like the smell of sentences, and this also makes writing hard work: “…I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else” (p. 53). But, “It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick” (p. 71). 

Dillard, A. (1989). The writing life. New York: Harper & Row. (111 pages)

El Porto Waltz

We found ourselves last night dancing at the ballroom again. We lost interest in the lesson quickly though, and chose to sit down, though our partner danced on, promenading around the dance floor, celebrating the dance community’s values. We thought of E. B. White’s dictum “Omit needless words.” Adapted for dance, it reads “Omit needless steps.” The lesson last night featured the waltz. We liked the country-western waltzes best: “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Waltz across Texas,” “Zydeco Waltz.”

We had used too many steps to express our personal El Porto Waltz, and sat at a corner table, nursing a cup of coffee, thinking of a post, writing notes on our handy pocket card with ball point pen, our favorite, the BIC Ultra, blue, glides like Danny Kaye (in our hand) across the worn tongue and groove, waxed maple floor of our imagination. But alas, without a reader for a partner, we are a single on that dance floor, a sometimes-discouraging feeling.

How is dancing like writing? Consider the forms, or styles. Dancing and writing both employ basic steps necessary for the partner-reader to recognize the form. The writer must learn to lead the reader, and not step on the reader’s toes, and, ultimately, discover the right combination of moves that allows grace to descend. One can improvise, but one improvises on the theme; drift too far, and the improvisation loosens anarchy upon the dance floor. The reader-partner must at least have some encouragement to follow the writer’s lead. Without that encouragement, one dances across paper solo.

Baseball and the parts of speech

Opening day of baseball should be declared a national holiday. Today’s the big day. In our area we’ve experienced snow flurries, rhubarbs of hail, and sleet, wind, and everyday rain this past week. But now the sun is supposed to make an appearance. Yet we know everything remains imperfect. We know the sun will not shine on every game. And we’ll let Malcolm Gladwell worry about baseball and drugs. We’re concerned about baseball and the parts of speech.  

E. B. White encourages us to write with nouns and verbs: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (p. 71). William Zinsser agrees, admonishing, “Most adverbs are unnecessary” (p. 69); and “Most adjectives are also unnecessary” (p. 70). But sage advice can mislead. Francis Christensen, in his book “Notes Toward a New Rhetoric,” views the game differently, quoting from John Erskine’s “The Craft of Writing”: “‘When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding.’ We have all been told that the formula for good writing is the concrete noun and the active verb. Yet Erskine says, ‘What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun…The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise…The modifier is the essential part of any sentence’“ (p. 4). 

We may not catch the parts of speech as they fly over our head or roll between our legs, yet they are always visibly in play. From most seats, a fan can’t tell if a pitch, upon delivery, is a fastball, a curve, a slider, a splitter, a cutter, a knuckler, a screwball, or a changeup, not until we see what the batter does with it, and even then we’re often unsure. Yet knowing the pitches and observing how the pitcher-catcher battery mixes them up against the batter is the best way to watch a game. Pitches are like words. There’s hardly time for a sentence from the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand to crossing the plate, but from windup to swing is a complete thought.  

We had the opportunity a couple of years ago to speak with Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Mariners. We wondered how he was able to call each pitch: “Freddy taking his time, now ready, shakes off a sign from Wilson, reads another, gets set, and here’s the pitch – fastball on the outside corner for call strike one.” Or it could have been a slider, or any of the other eight basic pitches of baseball. Niehaus delivered his answer in an anecdote: when he was broadcasting with the Angels, he said, owner Gene Autry came into the box one night after the game. “You called a great game tonight, Dave,” Gene Autry said; “I’m just not sure it was the same game that I saw.” 

Another time we were invited to watch an inning up in the broadcast booth. We sat next to Ron Fairly, LA Dodger first baseman of the 1960’s, who was keeping box score with a pencil, in a thick, oversized scorebook. There was a laptop in the booth, and a stats expert who worked it, feeding Niehaus and his sidekick Rick Rizzs notes and numbers they might fit into their commentary, but Fairly was keeping score the old-fashioned way, one pitch at a time, marking essentially the effects of each pitch. The broadcast booth framed a particular view of the game. The open window framed the field like a camera, directly behind and up from home plate, omitting the fans down the first and third base lines, thus forcing a sharpened focus onto the field of play. The broadcast booth afforded an enhanced view of the field, a very different view from any other seat we’ve occupied in the ballpark. 

We write for an audience, even if imaginary, but if you are going to call a game, you must block out the game the fans are watching, and call your own. Some coaches encourage pitchers to stick to the fastball and curve. Others admonish avoiding screwballs and changeups. Most pitchers specialize in only a few pitches they use repeatedly, mixing the rotation so the ball comes at the batter with surprise, and modifying with location and speed, depending on the age and condition of their arm – fastballs often lose their pizzazz as the arm ages.  

In the 1960s, in Los Angeles, roofed in blue, Dodgers fans often took their transistor radios to games to listen to the play by play by Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. One learned some of the tricks of the game. A homerun flies quickly out of a ballpark. “Homerun” adequately describes the hit, in the time it takes the ball to clear the fence, yet Vin Scully knew, as Christensen and Erskine did, that writing is “essentially a process of addition” (p. 4). For Vin Scully could be heard on the radio still talking about a long fly ball to deep right center field, Mays going back, way back, to the wall, it’s gone! – the ball having flown over the fence some time ago, the slugging Dodger already rounding second base. So it goes with writing as with baseball. There are tricks built into the skills. But now it’s time to call it quits for the day, quit writing, that is, because there’s a whiffle ball game starting up out on the block, and we don’t want to miss the first cut – it’s opening day!    

The amateur spirit in writing

We do not have the New Yorker DVD library (though we do have in the basement a stack of paper copies we regularly prune for mold), but we do have E. B. White’s “Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976,” edited by Rebecca M. Dale (HarperPerennial paperback edition published 1991).

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “’Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.”

Yet today, as the reading crisis spreads its tangential wings to include newspapers pruning peripheral departments, some semi-pro and pro writers are forced back into an amateur spirit.

Where will they go? Continued White: “Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature.”

Or before, in other words, they thought of themselves as real writers at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

But it’s not only to gain even amateur status that we might entertain the doubtful purposes of writing – for self or for others; it’s because even though we know full well we’ll never play right field for the Dodgers, we still enjoy shagging balls in the back-yard; we will still ride a skateboard down the hill, though of course we are no Tony Hawk, as our spouse reminds us, shouting she’s not taking us to emergency when we fall; and though we could never follow “Da Bull” into the big waves, when we’re back in El Porto, we’ll always paddle out for a small one.

Whatever happens to the pros, this amateur writing spirit hopefully encouraged and evidenced in the best blogging, whether pretence or preface, may enable those who agree that writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, to find a subject, knowing that subjects often reveal themselves only once we’ve made the commitment marked by a few hundred words.

Overhearing one’s own writing

In “The Gutenberg Galaxy” (1962), Marshall McLuhan was the first modern blogger. Though published in traditional book form, the structure resembles many of today’s blogs. Norman O. Brown followed suit with “Love’s Body,” in 1966. McLuhan and Brown built their books on a framework of short paragraphs full of quotes, or links, to a cornucopia of sources – both books cite hundreds of references. The writing is often aphoristic, cryptic, anecdotal. The quotes become like comments that propel the blog onward. 

McLuhan suggests that in the medieval world reading was oral. Monks read aloud, even when reading alone, because they had to hear the word in order to process its meaning (p. 115). Reading silently is a developmental skill, and some readers never master the skill of reading directly from eye to memory, but must mouth the words, moving their tongues silently. They read by hearing their own voice.

Brown said, “Our identity is always a case of mistaken identity” (p. 144). What is the identity within our writing? Are there times when the identity within our writing is a case of mistaken identity? 

Harold Bloom, in his portentous but readable book, “Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human,” suggests that Montaigne influenced Shakespeare, but says Montaigne’s essay, “Of Experience,” seems Shakespearean. Bloom’s subject in his final chapter is “foregrounding,” and he draws attention to this characteristic of Montaigne: “Montaigne, like Shakespeare’s greatest characters, changes because he overhears what he himself has said. It is in reading his own text that Montaigne becomes Hamlet’s precursor at representing reality in and by himself” (1998, p. 739). Montaigne wrote what he spoke, like he spoke. In other words, he practiced E. B. White’s “reminder” to “Write in a way that comes naturally” (p. 70). Yet Montaigne said that he spoke differently depending on his environment; he talked differently when conversing in Paris than when in Montaigne. Montaigne’s “principal aim and virtue,” in his writing, was “to be nothing but myself” (p. 113). He said “I speak on paper as I do to the first person I meet” (p. 115). Montaigne avoided affectation by accepting language as alive and therefore always changing: “I reject nothing which is current on the streets of France, for the man who would correct usage by grammar is a simpleton” (p. 113). 

We don’t encourage a writing anarchy; listen, and learn to compare your voice to the voice of others. Overhear your own writing. We don’t want to all sound the same; neither do we want to write the same. We want to write with originality and individuality. We want our voice to be our own, but we want others to be able to listen to our voice easily, without straining to hear. Read your writing aloud. What’s the identity of the speaker? Have someone else read your paper aloud to you. Is your writing true to your natural voice? Does your writing sound natural to you, or does it sound stilted, awkward, falsely academic? Try to overhear.

Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Louis Menand, in his review of Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” suspects “the whole thing might be a hoax.” (New Yorker, June 28, 2004.) Menand corrects with comments Truss’s misuse of commas: “Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases,” and elsewhere, while he also finds nonrestrictive clauses missing commas. That’s not all he finds wrong (the controlling error in Truss’s book, in Menand’s view, is that she repeatedly violates the very rules she claims hold value), and so he asks, reasonably, “Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?” Menand’s answer is that Truss’s true topic is not punctuation but declining literacy skills and values. Menand’s true topic is that mastery of punctuation and grammar rules doesn’t necessarily produce style, what he calls “voice”: “There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm, euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singular-any of these can enliven prose without giving it a voice. You can set the stage as elaborately as you like, but either the phantom appears or it doesn’t.”

The problem is that most readers either don’t recognize errors or ignore them if they do recognize them, or they recognize errors and do respond to them but their response is rendered useless by the fact that the general reader can’t discern a difference between the passage with the error and the same passage with the error corrected – so no one seems to be the wiser or not for the error recognized and its correction inserted. We either get the joke or we don’t, and if we don’t, it’s not the same experience having it explained to us. For a discussion of reader response to rules violated we should read Joseph M. Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error.” Williams, like Menand, also makes use of writers violating their own rules, and not just writers like Truss, but the venerable E. B. White, whose “Elements of Style” is a classic now in its fourth edition, and the practical George Orwell: “…I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay (“Politics and the English Language”) without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.”

“It don’t matter,” you  might be saying, “I amn’t one of those. Just give me a few rules I can understand and apply to get me through the long night of this paper” (if you happen to be writing one) or “these papers” (if you happen to be correcting a stack).

Williams did not argue for a rejection of rules. At the same time, he did not think the presence of a rule in a handbook requires us to honor it. Perhaps we should spend more time not correcting errors but commenting on what’s right in a paper (a student’s paper or students peer reviewing). But we might still have the same problem – Williams deliberately inserted about 100 errors into his original paper, so that he could ask his readers if they on a first reading noticed any of them. If a majority of readers, he reasoned, recognized the same errors on a first “non-reflexive” reading, those errors would be the ones we should all read for first: “In short, if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find. But if we could read those student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors.”

If we expect to learn to write by learning the rules… – but if we don’t know the rules, and we still managed to write something effective or even with Menand’s “voice,” how did we do it?

For more of Williams’s ideas see his “Clarity and Grace or Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” and the U Chicago writing site. There is a useful list of “articles on error analysis” at the IUB campus writing program site.

Menand, Louis. (2004, June 28). Bad comma. New Yorker.

Williams, Joseph. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32.