Writing Lessons

A Book to Remember

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By Douglas L. Wilson

January 26, 2015


 

The only course I ever took that required creative writing was in high school, and my memory of the writing I produced for it still gives me the willies. The class ultimately mattered much less than its teacher. A few years after I graduated, she came to visit me when I was laid up in the hospital and loaned me a book she had been reading. It was E. B. White’s new collection of essays and poems, The Second Tree From the Corner (1954), which I promptly devoured. Nothing could have been more welcome and refreshing, and she undoubtedly noted, on a return visit, that I had not only read but had obviously relished White’s book. So instead of reclaiming it, which is what I am sure she intended, she firmly insisted that I keep it.

Sixty years later, I still have the book and still read it with pleasure, being invariably drawn to the section called “The Wonderful World of Letters,” which features White’s inimitable commentary on various kinds of writing. A parody of Hemingway’s late prose style (“Across the Street and Into the Grill”) and a hilarious sendup in verse of the Classic Books Club in the style of Walt Whitman (“A Classic Waits for Me”) are particular favorites and exemplify White’s good-natured and respectful approach to satire. Also memorable is the piece in which he applies a pocket calculator designed to determine “reading ease” to the instructions that came with it, with the result: “Very Hard.” These pieces delight by quietly spotlighting good writing or, deftly and without malice, letting the hot air out of one kind of literary pretension or another. For me, the book has proved inexhaustible, the source, as I now recognize, of the best writing advice I ever got.


Douglas L. Wilson is professor emeritus of English and co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. His most recent book is Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words.


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