E.B. White on the Eloquence of Facts

by Mr. Sheehy

You might suppose that the next few entries in my journal, covering the days when I must have been winding up my affairs and getting ready to sail on a long voyage of discovery, would offer a few crumbs of solid information. Not at all. From Friday morning, when I announced that I would soon be off, until the departure of the Buford, several days later, my journal contains no helpful remarks, no hint of preparation, no facts about clothes, money, friends, family, anything. A few aphorisms; a long, serious poem to the girl on Lake Union (“Those countless, dim, immeasurable years,” it begins); a Morley clipping from the “Bowling Green” about writing (“A child writes well, and a highly trained and long-suffering performer may sometimes write with intelligence. It is the middle stages that are appalling. . . .”); a short effort in vers libre written on Sunday morning and describing my boarding house slatting around in the doldrums of a summer Sabbath—that is all I find in these tantalizing pages. Mr. Morely was right; the middle stages are appalling. As a diarist, I was a master of suspense, leaving to the reader’s imagination everything pertinent to the action of my play. I operated generally, on too high a level for routine reporting, and had not at that time discovered the eloquence of facts. I can see why the Times fired me. A youth who persisted in rising above facts must have been a headache to a city editor.

That’s E.B. White from “Years of Wonder” in Essays of E.B. White. I thought of this passage when I read Jonathan Rogers’s recent issue in his newsletter, The Habit: “On Giving an Account of What You Have Seen.” In that, Rogers tells the story of seeing a young girl keep a careful record of what she saw at a concert and compares her work to his own when he was in college:

I have a journal I kept in college. It’s terrible, terrible stuff. At that time in my life I seemed to have the impression that “real writers” only wrote about big ideas. If I ever made reference to an actual thing that actually happened in the physical world where I actually lived, it was only to turn it into a metaphor for some philosophical or theological notion I had. That journal is intensely boring to read. There are people whose philosophical and theological musings are interesting to read, but twenty-year-old Jonathan Rogers was not one of them.

The sad thing is that I happen to know that my life wasn’t intensely boring at that time. I knew interesting people and did interesting things. I so wish I had had the writerly discipline of that little girl who brought her notebook and pen at the concert in order to make a record of the life she was given that day. Sure, “Here’s what I thought at age twenty” has a certain interest. But I wish I also had made a record of what I did at age twenty, what I ate, where I went and with whom, and how much I paid for gas.

That’s good advice from two writers who know what they’re doing.