Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ambushed by E.B. White

This is an utterly embarrassing tale.  I would appreciate it if you would keep it between us -- you know, since we’re all friends.

It was the Spring of 1988, and I was in a bit of a hurry.  I was a sophomore at the University of Georgia, and I had an appointment with my history professor at LeConte Hall to discuss a paper I had recently written.  Unfortunately, I had lingered a bit too long over lunch at the Mayflower Restaurant and had only ten minutes to make it from downtown Athens to my professor’s office.  I sprinted across the quad on the Old North Campus, around the library, in the back door of LeConte Hall and up to my professor’s office on the second floor.  

Gasping for air, I checked my watch.  I had a minute to spare, so I took a deep breath and tried to calm down.  You see, I was a bit excited.  But who wouldn’t be?  I had, after all, written the best paper ever written about the Titanic and the end of the Gilded Age.  

When my history professor assigned the paper, he had made it clear that he was expecting more than a dry recitation of facts and a mere rehashing of class discussion and lectures.  He wanted original thoughts and analysis.  I spent four weeks toiling over my 1986 model IBM Wheelwriter 6 typewriter as I put my thoughts to paper.  The IBM Wheelwriter  was a spiffy machine -- fast, smooth, and quiet.  I was a blur of activity at fifteen words per minute. Page after page was typed and retyped multiple times.    I read, re-read, edited and re-edited each page.  My sentences were deep in substance, rich in word selection and structurally complex.  The paper was perfect.  I turned it in and waited for the accolades.  

And now my time had come.

At the appointed hour, I knocked on my professor’s door and entered his office.  He motioned to the chair in front of his desk.  I took my seat and waited.  He removed my paper from a folder on his desk and slid it across to me.

I looked at the paper and blinked.  

At the top of the first page was a red C-.

A C-?

That couldn’t be right.  Didn’t he understand that I had written the best paper every written about the Titanic and the end of the Gilded Age?   How could he not appreciate my deep thoughts, the richness of my words and the structural complexity of my sentences?  

I can’t remember if I said anything at that point, but I remember exactly what he said.  He told me that he could discern what I was trying to say (and yes, the words seemed to come out of his mouth in italics), but that I simply did not understand how to accomplish that task.  My history professor took a small, thin, dogeared paperback from the corner of his desk and placed it in front of me.  It was THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.

“Buy it,” he told me.  “It’s short.  Read it and use it.”

The meeting was over.

My initial reaction was, of course, that he was simply wrong.   I had taken years of grammar courses in junior high, high school and college.  I had written enumerable book reports, research papers, paragraphs and essays -- all of which had received good grades.  

Had all of this education failed me?  

I swallowed my pride and purchased the book.  It was remarkably easy to read and even easier to understand.  

The light bulb finally went off above my head.  My history professor expected his students to be able to convert complex thoughts and ideas into meaningful and accessible words, sentences and paragraphs.  And that, he understood, was the beauty of THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE.   The book is short, concise and direct.  The book does not attempt to cover every rule of grammar or speak to every point of style.   Rather, the authors of this wonderful book managed to identify the most important points of grammar and style and communicate them in a manner that is open and inviting.  It was, in short, everything my paper was not.

I still have my copy of Strunk and White.  My professor would be proud of the small, thin, dogeared book that now sits on the corner of my desk.

As I said, the whole episode is a bit embarrassing.  So -- if you don’t mind -- let’s just keep this little story between ourselves.

Deron Hicks lives in Warm Springs, Georgia with his wife Angela, daughter Meg and son Parker.  His first book - SECRETS OF SHAKESPEARE'S GRAVE -- was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Children in September 2012.  The second book in the series -- TOWER OF THE FIVE ORDERS -- is scheduled for publication in October 2013.  You can find Deron at his website or you can follow him on Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post, Deron! I somehow dodged EB White in college, discovering him in grad school instead. But I had a similar wake-up call in college, assuming I was writing in a clear and lively manner and hearing that I was not doing that at all. Ouch. What I love about Elements of Style is that it can apply to fiction and nonfiction writers alike.


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