I bought The Elements of Style in high school, having heard it contained some magic key that unlocked mysteries for wordsmiths.
I chose the smooth white edition from Penguin with the dog on the front and the catch-your-breath paintings marching through the pages. The other edition, silver and compact, would have fit into my pocket. In choosing art before utility I forfeited its perpetual back-pocket companionship, which, I heard, distinguished all serious writers.
I committed the white work to thorough ingestion. The black arrows running throughout my margins indicated places that pierced me with conviction. “Brevity is a byproduct of vigor,” said Strunk and White. They spoke with so much cleanliness and sparkle themselves that I could not disbelieve them.
Zinsser’s On Writing Well I read three semesters ago while I sat in a yellow chair in a coffee shop avoiding my homework. I recall feeling important as the title flashed at my peers walking by.
“Be grateful for everything you can throw away,” said Zinsser.
I knew what he meant. They say that in writing you kill your darlings, and I felt prepared to murder most of mine. I owed my resilience, if you’ll believe me, partly to an experience helping a widow clean out her house the previous summer.
I fondly called Barbara “my widow.” Because of her Depression-era rearing she amassed all manner of trash inside her lovely Victorian home. She allowed me to discard no cat litter boxes, no tissue scraps, no bits of paper scrawled over with the telephone numbers of the long deceased. Above all, we kept water. Water stored in cans and antique pitchers, growing green, an unfortunate residue of her Cornell ecology education. I became a Hemingway out of desperation and threw away cat food cans on tiptoe. By “threw away” I mean hid, for later disposal, for she kept no trash cans.
All the food, too, we scrupulously conserved.
The cats would not have drunk the thin, yellow milk she kept. We had thawed it in the microwave, and an iceberg floated in the center. Barbara tried to stir the iceberg out of it with her beef stew spoon, and I clenched my teeth, watching the beef strings float.
I practiced concision with words while Barbara ate. I chose a medium for translating life with brevity. I scribbled in iambic pentameter:
The freezer is Antarctically steeped.
From it she draws a dubious iced stew—
Not to be wasted, this what we’ll eat.
It can be stretched for satisfying two.
Upon the shelves five-score half-meals subsist,
All deep and hard in frost, and heaven knows
How many years between ourselves and those
Iced harvest stews and stiff skim milks have passed.
So when Strunk, White, and Zinsser tell me to eradicate clutter, and apply their sharper eyes to my own writing, I believe them. Brief is beautiful. If only, now, Penguin would apply both the briefness and the beauty to one volume. I would like the catch-your-breath paintings to fit into my pocket.