After two years of research and failed attempts, I was lucky enough to close escrow on a drafty circa-1910 two story fixer-upper in a small town in rural Maine a week before what became the pandemic-induced lockdown of March 2020.
My purpose was to establish a cozy, affordable summer writing retreat from my ESOL teaching position in Florida, returning to my New England roots whenever I could. Fate had other plans. Within the year, my school in St. Petersburg had shut down for good and I found myself essentially unemployed and propelled into a new life a bit sooner than I had expected. I found a part-time job at minimum wage, but life here is becoming more expensive (I am now a person who pays attention to the price of heating oil). And, since there is nothing to do at night and nowhere to go, and I don’t own a television, I have absolutely no excuses not to be productive.
When most people think of Maine, they think of lobster rolls and lighthouses. I think of E.B. White, who in midlife traded Manhattan for a life in Maine and whose writing continued to be fertilized by both environments. If you don’t already own it, please purchase a slender volume called The Elements of Style, 3rd Edition. (You can find used copies online for pennies.) To write clear and graceful sentences and paragraphs, it’s pretty much all you will ever need.
If you want to make a deep dive into the prose of E.B. White, it’s easy to find used copies of his iconic essays for Harper’s, One Man’s Meat, or Writings from The New Yorker, 1925-1976. Every word of these pieces is perfect, including the periods and the apostrophes. (To paraphrase Mary McCarthy’s infamous interview in which she asserted every word spoken by Lillian Hellman was a lie, including “and” and “the.”) But back to White’s pithy New Yorker pieces which I once used as teaching examples in an ESOL class populated mainly by the very educated wives of Japanese diplomats and businessmen. White’s writing is a perfect example of using specific, telling details to growing effect. His secret ingredients: humility, curiosity, humor, empathy. And mostly, paying attention.
Walking to Work, 2/13/37
From our home in the cinder belt to the 43rd Street pent-up house where we work is a distance of some nine blocks- in a southwesterly direction. It has sometimes occurred to us that we take an unconscionably long time walking it, the time ranging from fifteen minutes to two hours and a half. Three-quarters of an hour is about par. This morning, arriving at work at eleven-thirty, after being on the road for more than an hour, we felt that perhaps we should reconstruct the journey to see what the hell went on when we were supposed to be covering ground. There were dim memories of many uninspired shop windows, including an imaginary decision involving a pair of madras pajamas, as between the gray with the narrow stripes and the deep blue…..(ellipsis added)
There was the pause in front of the art shop’s nude-of-the-day, in company with the gray little group of men (art lovers all), each of us trying to look as if we were interested in gum erasers and T squares. There was the slowing of pace in front of Charles & Ernest’s, to see who was getting his hair cut today. There was the pastry shop, with its fascinating handling of yet undigested material. There was Abercrombie’s, effeteness blended with woodcraft; the side trip into the bookshop to examine new titles; the side trip to Radio City to see how the ice looked; the pause while two cats stared each other down in a parking lot. (And incidentally, why will men stop and watch cats carrying on and women never? Is it because a tom is an unmistakable rake?)
Our unreconstructed journey was not encouraging. The wonder is we arrived at all.
E.B. White, from Writings from the New Yorker, 1925-1976
I don’t know about you, but reading this makes me smile, lowers my heart rate and in general makes the world and the people in it a bit more bearable.
This kind of lollygagging, this mindful idleness that refreshes and redirects, is what Jenny Odell writes about in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. If you pick one book to read this month, pick this one. Perhaps it’s the reinforcement you need to get back to basics and do the work you love, in the way that feels right to you.
There are so many writers of clean, crisp prose I want to inspire you to read: Muriel Spark (The Girls of Slender Means), Paula Fox, with her deep, unshowy empathy (especially The Coldest Winter) or Lucia Berlin (A Manual for Cleaning Women). I’m just expressing preferences here, not passing judgments. Critics such as John Leonard, Anatole Broyard and Randall Jarrell taught me so much in their passionate and generous celebrations of writing they loved and their unabashed acknowledgment of what moved them personally (albeit backed up by their sharp critical insights and wide-ranging and enthusiastic reading habits).
When in Maine, read Mainers, I told myself, and the isolation of the pandemic was made for the task. I went on a rampage those first few cold months, self-isolating and making crude masks out of cotton socks by watching YouTube videos. I tore through the brutal but brilliant memoir-cum–environmental exposé Mill Town (Kerri Arsenault), the evocative celebration of family in When We Were the Kennedys (Monica Wood), the letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay and, of course, the fiction of Elizabeth Strout. I’d already read Olive Kittridge and Olive Again, but I went all the way back to her first, Amy and Isabelle. (It’s a knockout.) I admit, I aspire to be a bit of a “completist”— which led me to acquiring a copy of the ‘80’s cult novel by Walter Tevis on which The Queen’s Gambit Netflix series (a juicy pandemic binge) was based. The novel is even heavier with chess strategy than the series, and I doubt if it would find a publisher today.
But Strout, again: I finished her latest, Lucy By the Sea, all in a gulp, ignoring every daily task that could be postponed, rewarding myself with a few pages as often as I could. What’s the source of this magic spell that can wrap itself around us for days? Can it be broken down and analyzed? How does a writer use words on a page to create what her uniformly dazzled critics call “ruthless intimacy” and “vibrating silences” ? What is “style” in fiction? And why, when I picked up Strout’s Amy and Isabelle again to glance at its opening pages for a moment did I sit down with it for an hour, unable to stop reading? Figuring out how fiction writers ensnare and bewitch us is a mystery I’m never going to tire of trying to solve. Assuming the basics of clarity, grammar, etc. I think it comes down to firm conviction on the part of the author: this is a story I believe in, that you need to read. There’s no phoning it in.
Some well-known writers have been known to say they don’t read the work of others (for fear of unconscious imitation) while they are immersed in creating their own novels. Can writers afford to be so out of touch? Does it matter? Does dipping into other genres keep the juices flowing without blurring boundaries? I’d love to hear what other writers think about this. I oscillate wildly between the very newest (Night of the Living Rez, The Wrong End of the Telescope,) and various neglected (by me) classics. I’m currently reading a few pages of George Eliot’s Middlemarch every night, determined to catch up with this tirelessly referenced tome and get it off my punch list. My War & Peace project was richly rewarding: ten pages every night until finished, ten years ago. Essential reading, so timely. And now I wonder: who will write War & War?
Previously I had thought Middlemarch to be the name of some ghastly Victorian villain, but no, it’s the name of a very ordinary small town in rural England, and the goings-on are remarkably similar to what I am seeing every day in my little corner of west-central Maine—the petty social jousting, the gossip, the jockeying for power and the gentle, relentless backstabbing.
So, it’s full circle back to Maine and the world in a blade of grass. Or in one of the dozens of scarlet leaves, dropped this November by the towering Northern Red Oak outside my window that I have nicknamed Ruby. She looks so naked and embarrassed now.
I wish you all a Happy Late November Holiday Involving Cranberry Sauce and Brussel Sprouts, and possibly a Large Roasted Fowl or Curried Tofu Casserole. Here in Penobscot Nation, we don’t use the T———-g word. At the least, I think we can easily refrain and still celebrate the coming together of friends and family at harvest time to affirm our fervent common wish: to live in inclusive, welcoming communities, and help each other survive the dark winter ahead.