Learning From E. B. White.

Photo of E.B. White.

E.B. White and his dog, Minnie.

“I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

Ah, good old Elwyn Brooks. Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Elements of Style. I’ve read two out of that noble three, but I’ll leave it up to you, dear reader, to guess which one has been neglected.

According to James Thurber, during White’s time at The New Yorker he would sneak out the fire escape in order to avoid visitors he didn’t know. I can certainly identify with that. We would have gotten along, Elwyn. Or rather, we wouldn’t have gotten along… we probably would never have met, since we both would have run for the nearest escape route at the prospect of being faced with new people. But I think he just might have been a kindred spirit.

Interestingly, we are exact opposites when it comes to distraction tolerance. I often work with headphones on, using lyric-free music, or songs that are so familiar as to become white noise, to drown out the everyday traffic sounds of a house with three other adults in it. I simply cannot write with other people rampaging around (read: going about their legitimate business at reasonable decibel levels), even in the relative privacy of my bedroom.

Ah, but that’s where the learning comes in. The underlinable, tweetable part of the quote: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” Basically, saying there are conditions I “simply cannot” write under is simply another excuse.

Suck it up and pull yourself together, Elisabeth Anne.


This post is the second in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

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