The Duty of Writers: Pay No Attention to Duty

Charlene D’Avanzo: EB White charactersI haven’t been at this mystery writing business long, so now and then I seek the wisdom of veteran authors hoping their acumen will rub off. For some reason I’m often thirsty for literary inspiration at bedtime, so there’s a short stack of books in the ready on my nightstand. E.B. White’s One Man’s Meat is one of my favorites.

In print since 1942, White’s primer is a compilation of his Harper’s Magazine columns plus a few New Yorker essays. White penned most at his saltwater farm in North Brooklin across a reach from Deer Isle during and after World War II. He tells us about his transformation from sophisticated urbanite to Maine farmer in essays titled “Compost”, “Lime”, “Maine Speech” and “Getting Ready for the Cow”, among others. In “Salt Water Farm,” White talks about writing.

“I was sorry to hear the other day that a certain writer, appalled by the cruel events of the world, had pledged himself never to write anything that wasn’t instructive and significant . . .  He worries me.

I hope he isn’t serious, but I’m afraid he is … A writer must believe in something, of course, but he shouldn’t join a club … Even in evil times, a writer should cultivate only what naturally absorbs his fancy, whether it be freedom or cinch bugs, and they should write in a way that comes easy …

In a free country, it is the duty of writers to pay no attention to duty.”

Cause-motivated myself, I really ought to post this last bit on my wall. The cruel event worrying me is starting carbon dioxide concentration, and each book in my series has a climate-change understory.

See that I just used “cause” and “worry” in reference to my books, wouldn’t White liken me to his “certain writer?” I think not and thank my characters for the help. If I ask them to pontificate on some environmental crime, they simply won’t do it. “Tedious.” “Who’d want to read that?” Or “come on!” they say.

Fictional CharactersFiction writers of all sorts understand what I’m talking about. To us, the folks who populate our stories are very real. We know their histories, weaknesses, fatal flaws, and secrets. They literally speak to us, witness mine who keep me from moralizing.

The Irish have their wee people, the religious have their angels. And writers, we have characters we think about and consult every day. I imagine some would find this pretty strange. We, I think we’re awfully lucky.



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