I’m falling in love with Emily Dickinson. It’s not exactly a head-over-heels kind of thing. And it’s not overnight.
Far from it. I’ve been reading her poetry since I was in junior high school where I began to absorb the conventional wisdom about the poems’ meanings and references. But whenever I read her poems on my own, I found many difficult to decipher. They were like little candies with hard, sometimes bitter, centers that I couldn’t chew.
Why did it take me so long? Probably partly because I have a contrary streak and I’m wary of following the crowd, (even a literary crowd). And partly because the frail, overly precious “Belle of Amherst” image has always turned me off.
But now, because I’m doing research on a novel set in her world, I’m spending extended time with her work. I’m seeing a different, edgy side of her –a “tooth that nibbles at the soul” to use her own words. And it’s her words – or more precisely, the way she juxtaposes them – that’s making me fall in love.
They’re startling, these juxtapositions – strange and provocative and altogether new. And they’re everywhere – phrases bright as flowers scattered across a summer meadow. No wonder so many book titles have come from her work:
evenings of the brain
auctioneer of parting
experience is the angled road
metropolis of homes
a tooth upon our peace
gilt with sacrifice
economical of bliss
They shake me up and spin me around and make me see the world in new ways. I end up feeling the same awe so many of her admirers before me have felt.
I came late to this party, but I’m finally here. Like so many others before me, I’m falling in love with Emily.
There are hundreds of great writing advice books available today as well as magazines and blogs and blogs of reflections on the writing life. But the one book that belongs on every writer’s shelf is The Elements of Style. It’s been on mine for nearly forty years and it’s one of my most-used books. In fact it’s received so much wear I’ve replaced it – twice.
First published privately in 1918 by Cornell University professor William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style was later revised and expanded by the wonderful writer E. B. White and published by Macmillan in 1959.
It’s one of the slimmest books I own. But in only 85 short pages the authors zero in on some of the most frequently broken rules of English usage and form, commonly misused words and expressions, and the basic guidelines of good composition. My favorite section, though, and the one I return to again and again is the last one: “An Approach to Style.” There, twenty-one “reminders” capture the essentials of style mastery. From the caution against using unorthodox spelling to the importance of revision, all the fundamentals are here.
The book is also filled with the kind of gems I like to print out and stick on my refrigerator, such as these:
- The the surest way to arouse and hold the reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete.
- Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.
- The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by.
I’ve found the advice just as useful for writing fiction and poetry as for prose. I always recommend the book to my students and clients and reread it myself at least once a year. Does the book contain everything a writer needs to learn and master? Probably not. But it’s the best kind of foundation: solid bedrock.
The Elements of Style is the writer’s Bible. It belongs on your shelf, too.