The other day I was invited to a gala dinner event. Towards the end of a most inspiring evening, and just before the dinner, the Chief Guest delivered his speech. Trouble was, it was a long delivery: we all felt the labor pains. At one point, he said "And I now digress to say that..." and the young man sitting next to me groaned, "Oh no, please please don't digress!" I felt bad for the CG, who, in his seriousness, had forgotten he was the last thing that stood between the audience and its dinner. He should have listened to E. B. White and Will Strunk's timeless advice: "Omit Needless Words."
Somehow in our cultural makeup, specially when using English, we just love to pile in the words. "With humble submission I beg to state that" was what the Brits taught the Indians to start letters with. That is gone, but now in its place, I once gave a speech to an august body in Rajshahi that started like this: "Distinguished Mayor of Rajshahi, Honored City Council Members, Respected representatives of XYZ Furrin Organization, Highly Regarded Members of Parliament and the rest of you riffraffs I mean honored ladies and gentlemen." Once was enough, never again I swore. [Ok, ok, I didn't really say riffraffs - just checking if you are paying attention.]
Ok, so what's the connection between verbosity in Bangladesh and an American writer? Simple: White's lessons and examples, if followed, would result in more precise and effective use of English words in our culture. Here is an introduction to his works and lessons.
Elwyn Brooks White (1899-1985) is best remembered for his essays, poems and sketches. He also wrote the classic children's stories Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web. With Will Strunk Jr, White was the co-author of The Elements of Style, a guidebook for writing well.
White’s essays are infused with a profound civility and respect for nature. A master of writing style, he was a persuasive champion of plain and direct writing. A gentle humor permeated his words.
Take, for example, his essay Riposte, where he discusses a recently published article, The Meaning of Brown Eggs, written by an Englishman. White is not pleased with the article’s attempt to categorize Americans based on their preference for white eggs over brown. "Why is it, do you suppose, that an Englishman is unhappy until he has explained America?" he asks, arguing, "... but one seldom meets an American who is all tensed up because he has yet to explain England."
At the end of A Listener’s Guide to the Birds, a poem describing various bird sounds, White signs his name in bird-watcher terms:
"E. B. WHITE (gray cheeks,
frequents bars and glades)"
Or take the start of The World of Tomorrow, an essay on the World’s Fair in New York,: "I wasn't really prepared for the World's Fair last week, and it certainly wasn't prepared for me. Between the two of us there was considerable of a mixup."
I first encountered White's work in 1977, when I entered Cornell University, New York, as a freshman. To my dismay I discovered that all freshmen were required to take a full year of English writing classes. I thought this was a waste of time since I knew all there was to know about writing. After all, hadn’t I earned an “A” in O-Level English? The first essay I wrote for my class proved me wrong. My typewritten paper came back from the teacher covered with red (outright mistakes) and blue (suggestions for improvement) marks.
I was humbled. A friend saw my predicament and brought me The Elements of Style. Not since Class 3, when my father gave me a crash-course in English grammar, had I learned so much about writing in such a short time. Soon my run-on sentences stopped running, my modifiers stopped dangling and my infinitives were joined: I made it through the writing class.
That was in 1977. Since then, this little book - originally written by Strunk, then revised and updated by White – has been my constant companion. With twenty-two precise and clear rules of English grammar and an inspiring essay on writing style, it has shaped my thinking and helped me communicate my ideas clearly .
Some of these rules yield direct, forceful words. For example, using Rule 16, “Put Statements in Positive Form”, we write, “He usually came late” instead of “He was not very often on time.” Rule 15, “Use the active voice”, exhorts us to change, for example, “My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me” into “I shall always remember my first visit to Boston.”
Other rules dispel confusions of grammar. Rule 1, “Follow the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s” is followed by examples “Charles’s tonsils”, “Burns’s poems”, and “the witch’s malice.” I also find Rule 10 useful: “Use the proper case of pronoun.” This rule lets me write “Will Jane or he be hired?” instead of “Will Jane or him be hired?”
An important theme in The Elements of Style is Rule No. 17, "Omit needless words." I let the book elaborate: "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects in only in outline, but that every word tell."
What a beautiful world it would indeed be if all needless words were omitted! What would the politicians say? Or all those people yakking on their mobile phones? And wouldn't Bollywood have to shorten all its movies to five minutes?
In addition to being influenced by Strunk's thoughts on brevity, White was also a fan of the American philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau. Having built a house near a pond in Walden, Massachusetts, Thoreau had lived there, alone, for several seasons, sustaining himself with food he himself grew. The book Walden, which Thoreau wrote during this sojourn, remains a classic of philosophy and simple living.
White had read Thoreau's Walden so many times that he had memorized parts of it. He even thought that Walden's Table of Contents, wherein eighteen chapters are named using thirty nine words, was a lesson in brevity.
In the essay The Retort Transcendental, White speculated on how he could quote from Walden in answer to common questions.
For example, if he ran into a friend after a long time, and was asked, "Where have you been all this time?" White would reply, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer." Or if he walks into a restaurant alone during a busy hour, and the headwaiter - unhappy about one person perhaps taking up a whole table - asks accusingly "All alone?" the proper Waldenian response is, "I feel it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating."
But even Thoreau is not immune from White’s humorous prodding. In A Slight Sound of Evening, an essay discussing Walden, White writes: “Thoreau said he required of every writer, first and last, a simple and sincere account of his own life. Having delivered himself of this chesty dictum, he proceeded to ignore it.”
Born in 1899, White attended Cornell from 1917 to 1921. During his senior year he was the chief editor of the college newspaper Cornell Daily Sun. Most of his professional life was spent working for the New Yorker and Harper's magazines. In 1937, he bought a farm in Maine and lived there with his family. He then split his time between writing and farming. Many of his essays have real-life, touching descriptions of his experiences with nature and animals at his farm.
Here is an example from his essay A Report in Spring: "No rain has fallen in several weeks. The gardens are dry, the road to the shore is dusty. The ditches, which in May are usually swollen to bursting, are no more than a summer trickle. Trout fishermen are not allowed on the streams; pond fishing from a boat is still permissible. The landscape is lovely to behold, but the hot, dry wind carries the smell of trouble." I don't know about you, but reading this I can feel the crackle of dry air on my skin.
While White covered many genres, for me he belongs squarely in the canon of nature writing, the crown jewel of American literature. Molded by America's pioneer spirit, wide open spaces and magnificent mountains and prairies, the writers of this genre - Thoreau, John Muir, Peter Matthiessen, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, John McPhee, Barry Lopez and others – spent much time in the American wilderness and wrote about their experiences in a way that was both universal and personal.
White’s essays are powerful because they ring true, since they are borne out of his lived experience. But what makes them enjoyable is his way with words. As another American humorist James Thurber said, “No one can write a sentence like White.” And in the heart of White’s crisp sentences was his passion for brevity.
This love-affair with brevity has universal parallels, of course. The notion that a well-crafted creative work contains no more and no less than what is necessary to express the artist’s vision is an old one.
Shakespeare excelled in precise and parsimonious use of words, lending punch to his writing. That is why we find it so easy, even after 400 years, to use one of his phrases to express a complex or subtle notion.
Tagore's songs are masterpieces because they have exactly the right number of words and notes: no more, no less. That's one reason they have the power to move us without being sentimental or maudlin.
The great classical composers, such as Mozart and Beethoven, also wrote their music in the same way. In the movie Amadeus, based on Mozart’s life, there is an exchange between Mozart and his benefactor, the pompous Emperor Joseph II. Mozart plays a piece he has just composed for the Emperor. The Emperor likes it, but since he is Emperor, he feels he must find a fault. “It has too many notes,” he says, “Cut a few”. The precocious Mozart quickly retorts, “Then which notes would your Majesty like me to cut?” For this the Emperor has no good answer.
Our own master stylist, Dr. Syed Mujtaba Ali, was also a proponent of brevity. In an essay on Bangali food habits, he says that our dinner parties serve too many dishes. When he complains the host, the usual reply is, “We did not know which dish you would like, so eat the one you like most.”
But that probably means the host does not know what his or her masterpiece is. "Does a novelist write a novel with five different endings and let you choose the one you want?” asks an exasperated Mujtaba.
Brevity adds another dimension to the well-executed creative work: we enjoy it without feeling the load of the artist’s hard work behind it. The artist or writer may have had to struggle and revise many times, but what we enjoy is the final, polished work, looking effortless. For example, when we see an Olympic diver, we marvel at his grace, though he never overtly reminds us of the years of hard work he has invested in preparing for this moment.
So it is with White’s work. A few sentences into one of White’s essays, my mind is usually filled with joy, hope, and a sense of well-being. But White was a generous craftsman: for those who want to create like him, he left instructions.