Choose an artist and free-associate. Today, the wonderful E(lwyn) B(rooks) White, staff writer for the New Yorker and author of such classic books as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and Elements of Style.
- SOME PIG.
- A good speller, that spidery Charlotte.
- “Well,” said Stuart, “a misspelled word is an abomination in the sight of everyone.”
- Well said, mouse. It’s certainly offensive to me.
- Whoops! “Certainly: Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use very, to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing.”
- So sorry, messieurs Strunk and White. Thanks in advance for all future advice on style.
- Double whoops! “Thanking you in advance: This sounds as if the writer meant, ‘It will not be worth my while to write to you again.’ Simply write, ‘Thanking you,’ and if the favor which you have requested is granted, write a letter of acknowledgment.”
Before I leave this writer, I have to say a word about one of my all-time favorite short stories: “The Second Tree from the Corner.” It appeared first in the May 31, 1947 issue of the New Yorker.
You should read it. Unfortunately, the magazine’s digital archive is behind a pay-wall. It’s collected, though, in John Updike, ed., The Best American Short Stories of the Century. A man named Trexler sees a psychiatrist. He has a panoply of symptoms: “dizziness in the streets, the constricting pain in the back of the neck, the apprehensions, the tightness of the scalp, the inability to concentrate, the despondency and the melancholy times, the feeling of pressure and tension, the anger at being not able to work, the anxiety over work not done, the gas on the stomach.”
The doctor’s first question to Trexler is, “Ever have any bizzarre thoughts?” Trexler doesn’t know how to answer. All his thoughts seem bizarre to him. And so it goes with the sessions. One day, the doctor asks him, “What do you want?” Trexler has an insight: everyone wants something. It’s the something that’s crucial.
He leaves the office. Walks out into a New York evening. He realizes that what he wants is not something like an addition on his house, but something “inexpressible and unattainable … deep, formless, enduring, and impossible of fulfillment.” He remembers that what he wanted was “at once great and microscopic, and that although it borrowed from the nature of large deeds and of youthful love and of old songs and early intimations, it was not any of those things, and that it had not been isolated or pinned down, and that a man who attempted to define it in the privacy of a doctor’s office would fall flat on his face.”
And the tree of the title? As he walks away from the doctor’s building, he sees that tree: “A small tree, rising between him and the light, stood there saturated with the evening, each gilt-edged leaf perfectly drunk with excellence and delicacy.” That’s what he decides he wants. “And he felt a slow pride in realizing that what he wanted none could bestow, and that what he had none could take away.”
In case you missed that: “what he wanted none could bestow, and … what he had none could take away.”
That, my friends, is worth writing down and keeping safe.