The Atlantic: E.B. White on the Responsibility and Role of the Writer

The Atlantic, Maria Popova, “E.B. White on the Responsibility and Role of the Writer”

Beware: Random musings follow.

I find this article about E.B. White both inspiring and depressing. “Inspiring” because White is obviously a paragon in both the professional and amateur realms of writing with so many excellent things to say about the practice of writing as an art inherently vital to human existence, and “depressing” because of the unfortunately accurate observations Maria Popova makes in response to some of White’s ideas within the context of modern written expression, especially with regards to the internet. I imagine myself to be a “writer” in a few different senses, which makes it doubly strange and awkward for me to think about writing.

On the one hand, I am a professional whose job title includes the word “writer,” though I rarely feel like what I’m doing can be considered “writing.” It’s mechanical and uninspired, but does my completing my writing tasks with enough competency to be paid make me something of an authority? Is “writing” as a practice concerned primarily with the means of expressing? I don’t know. I don’t think so. My unquantifiable sense is that there’s something more to true “writing.” I’m not sure what I do from nine to five is “writing” so much as “engineering.”

On the other hand, when I can I do spend a great deal of time agonizing over my yet-to-be-fully-realized original creative writing projects. So, in another sense, I think of myself more in line with the typical idea of what a “writer” should be. Of course the difficulty in making that judgment is that I am the only one validating that thought – I am an amateur unfamiliar with the acid tests of publication. I could actually be terrible at writing, and thus a pretty awful “writer” when all is said and done.

Many of us write all of the time and for a multitude of purposes, but what is it that differentiates a creative writer’s more earnest efforts at clear, efficient, imaginative expression from the efforts of someone who is paid to do it or someone with little training and nothing more than a penchant to have their voice heard? Is the short-tempered commentator’s one-sentence response to a piece of writing as valid a response as a lengthy analysis of the same work? If, in the age of the internet, all voices essentially carry the same weight, who determines validity of effort and if no one can, why worry about it?

The question of validity is one that routinely plagues my creative endeavors, and obviously one that has plagued thoughtful writers for as long as humans have maintained written records. My only attempt at an answer to the question of validity is “enjoyment.” If the writing (either the act or appreciation for the end result of the act, i.e., reading) is something that brings one joy or satisfaction, I guess that’s all there is to it, even if that writing largely exists in a void. To write is to put forth ideas the writer thinks there is worth in recording. The best I can do is hope all of these ideas are of some value in the end.

E.B. White: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.”

Maria Popova: “One important reflection is that in 1969, implicit to the very nature of print was a kind of accountability, a truth standard that engendered in White this sense of ‘responsibility to society.’ As news and opinion have shifted online, a medium much more fluid and dynamic, this notion of baked-in accountability no longer holds true and, one might observe, has allowed journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. “


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