Editor’s Notebook: A line of words
Sometimes, a summer job can set you on a life-defining path. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
“When you write, you lay out a line of words.”
That is the first sentence of Annie Dillard’s 1989 book, “The Writing Life.” She continues: “The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory. Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.”
I found Dillard’s book while working at a pop-up bookstore in Concord one summer in the early 1990s. The store was really just rows and rows of tables set up end to end in a vacant car dealership, and each table was lined with books that were loosely organized by category and not at all alphabetically. If you were looking for a specific title or author, well, good luck. This was not a place to find a certain book but for a certain book to find you.
It’s one of the best jobs I ever had. I don’t recall how much it paid, other than that it wasn’t much, but the perks were extraordinary. Employees could buy any book for one dollar – and we could buy as many as we wanted. At the end of every shift, the five or six of us charged with restocking and neatening the tables would stand in line at the register, arms full, and pay for our hauls. I bought well over a hundred books that summer, and I’m still chipping away at the reading. Today, as I look over at the bookshelf, I spot a few volumes of Faulkner waiting for me. They’ve been waiting a long time, but wait they will. That’s what books do.
I remember being struck by Dillard’s book that summer, and that lovely opening paragraph, as a young man trying to figure out how he could make a living working with words. I knew teaching wasn’t quite right for me, and as much as I liked to think of myself as a writer back then I was smart enough to see that I was not headed to the best-seller lists any time soon.
And then, there was journalism.
There is no one reason why a person goes to work at a newspaper. Some are following in mom or dad’s footsteps, others are driven to hold those in power accountable, and a few stumble their way into the field. Most who make a career of it are united in their desire to master the craft of writing. They care about words, the structure of sentences, the rhythm of paragraphs. To these tellers of other people’s stories, the responsibility to subject and symphony is immense. They “omit needless words” as commanded by E.B. White and don’t so much finish writing and editing as run out of time. The story can always be better. Always – but there are deadlines.
That summer, I also spent three dollars on three of White’s books: “Essays of E.B. White” and “One Man’s Meat” in paperback, and “Poems and Sketches” in hardcover. In “Essays,” I read “Death of a Pig” for the first time, and I have read it dozens of times since. I’ve studied it the way a minor leaguer dedicated to the craft of hitting might study the intricacies of Mike Trout’s swing, or how an aspiring artist might contemplate the individual brush strokes of a master. For me, an accidental journalist obsessed with the shape of words, the final paragraph is sublime.
By way of setup, I’ll mention only that Fred is White’s dachshund. The title of the essay provides the rest of what the reader needs to know: “The news of the death of my pig traveled fast and far, and I received many expressions of sympathy from friends and neighbors, for no one took the event lightly and the premature expiration of a pig is, I soon discovered, a departure which the community marks solemnly on its calendar, a sorrow in which it feels fully involved. I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs. The grave in the woods is unmarked, but Fred can direct the mourner to it unerringly and with immense good will, and I know he and I shall often revisit it, singly and together, in seasons of reflection and despair, on flagless memorial days of our own choosing.”
It is my turn now to tell you why I find that to be one of the finest paragraphs I’ve ever read, but I can’t do that any more than the aspiring .300 hitter can explain Trout’s swing. Neither I nor the ballplayer have the words. Perfection defies description.
If it’s true that life all comes down to a few moments, I suppose the day I filled out an application to spend a summer surrounded by books is one of them. I can still see the enormous reinforced cardboard boxes – big enough to hide inside with Forster and Flaubert – filled with disordered volumes purchased by the pound. The bulk of life was ahead of me then, and as blind as I was to my future I could see the sentences taking shape on the page. I could see how the waiting story would begin and end: “When you write, you lay out a line of words.”
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