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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

HAPPY BIRTHDAY E.B. WHITE: HOW THE AUTHOR SHAPED MY LIFE


HAPPY BIRTHDAY E.B. WHITE!

E.B. White was born today in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1899. As I’m writing this, a tiny spider has spent the past week living on my lampshade and crawling around my desk in stutter steps. Of course whenever I see a spider, especially a tiny one, I think of Charlotte’s little spiders in Charlotte's Web. Like Fern with the runt pig soon to be named Wilbur, I’ve already saved this spider from impending death a few times. First, from being swallowed up by my keyboard (a quick turning over of the keys and a few shakes brought the spider out, from which he landed upside down but somehow righted himself. I’m convinced it is a he). And second, from being killed by me. I confess that when I first saw him stutter-stepping in between the lined paper of my revision notes I grew frightened, took the paper into the bathroom where I dropped him in the waste basket, only to feel guilty and find him again, gently coaxing him back onto the paper (this took three attempts) and then back onto my desk where he could crawl up my owl lamp and onto the lampshade where he lives.  

                 THAT’S THE IMPACT E.B. WHITE HAS HAD ON ME. 

(Looking for the spider at this moment, I notice that ironically, he’s got a thread-like line between my illustration of a pig and my computer screen, and I quickly move my paperweight out of crushing distance.)
E. B White writing at his Brooklin farm in Maine.

E. B. White also taught me a lot about writing. Like a good beginning and how details matter--the kind of detail that editors might want to remove--the kind of detail you fight to keep in manuscripts so that readers like you and me can enjoy a line about the rain because it’s just, well … enjoyable. (Even though it doesn’t propel the story forward.) CASE IN POINT: the opening of Chapter 4 in Charlotte's Web

Rain fell in the barnyard and ran in crooked courses down into the lane where thistles and pigweed grew. Rain spattered against Mrs. Zuckerman's kitchen windows and came gushing out of the downspouts. Rain fell on the backs of the sheep as they grazed in the meadow. When the sheep tired of standing in the rain, they walked slowly up the lane and into the fold.

Now doesn't that make you feel differently about sheep or at the very least, want to find out what pigweed looks like? 

As for how to write something in a grammatically acceptable way, I’ve also been carrying around a copy of The Elements of Style since I was a teenager. (White edited the definitive guide on grammar & style.)  And I know I should be reading it more often than I do.

In 1978, White was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize for his body of work as a whole. He died seven years later at age 86 of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes me sad. I wouldn’t have wanted him forgetting how much his work mattered to so many people, or how many lives he changed with his books. 

My love for animals grew because of him and does to this day. My love of Maine is also another thread that E.B.White wove into my life. 

And on the 60th anniversary year of Charlotte’s Web, and what would have been E. B. White’s 113th birthday, I encourage you to think happy thoughts about animals--including spiders--and to think about dusting off your copy of Charlotte’s Web and reading it again.

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