January 31, 2021 ➳ Word of the day
My friend Marcus recently lobbed the following texts my way:
These are interesting but separate questions. Let’s take a breath. Inhale: Who is your favorite writer? Exhale: Who do you think of when you sit down to write? Marcus is asking about inspiration.
The literal meaning of inspiration is to breathe in. It comes from the Latin, inspirare, meaning “to blow into or breathe upon.” Its usage is mostly metaphorical, especially in the 14th century when it specifically described the supernatural force encouraging the writers of sacred texts. The wind of the divine in the sails of the scribe.
Inspiration’s opposite is expiration, to breathe out. At the root of both is spirare, “to breathe,” which also gives us “spirit.” This makes sense. Spirit is the animated evidence of life and breath is the force which sustains it.
You’ll hear talk about devouring books, but I think breath is a better metaphor. There’s no chewing, or digesting, or excreting with language. It’s more about taking an idea, holding it for a moment, and letting it float away.
So I’ll interpret “Who is my favorite writer?” as “Whose words would I most want to inhale?” Without a doubt this is E.B. White.
I discovered White when I was thirteen years old. I recognized his name in the library stacks attached to a collection of New Yorker essays. I assumed that the children’s book author was moonlighting as an essayist. Years later the world corrected my backward estimation.
His sentences are scintillating. His paragraphs pack a punch. He imparts gravitas to minutia in a way I’ve never been to figure out:
Possibly you have noticed this about New Yorkers: instinctively, crossing a one-way street, they glance in the proper direction to detect approaching cars. They always know, without thinking, which way the traffic flows. They glance in the right direction as naturally as a deer sniffs upwind. Yet after that one glance in the direction from which the cars are coming, they always, just before stepping out into the street, also cast one small, quick, furtive look in the opposite direction–from which no cars could possibly come. That tiny glance (which we have noticed over and over again) is the last sacrifice on the altar of human fallibility; it is an indication that people can never quite trust the self-inflicted cosmos, and that they dimly suspect that some day, in the maze of well-regulated vehicles and strong, straight buildings, something will go completely crazy–something big and red and awful will come tearing through town going the wrong way on the one-ways, mowing down all the faithful and the meek. Even if it’s only a fire engine. “Crossing the Street,” July 16, 1932
White’s “small, quick, furtive look” always gets me. It reminds me of Robert Browning’s “one long yellow string” from Porphyria’s Lover. A four-word phrase of lynchpin strength that says it all.
I read White’s work with a sweet and spicy mix of awe and envy. This is his definition of the word “democracy”:
Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.
Now that’s a word of the day.
Who do you think of when you sit down to write?
That’s a whole pile of phews, sighs, and exhales; they’re all different. Sometimes I think about comedians I admire, particularly those obsessed with phrase like Jerry Seinfeld or Mitch Hedberg. I’ll remember Hinton Als when I want to snap out of something, or I’ll ask what would Nick Paumgarten do, and never actually answer the question.
I was probably snorting Martin Amis and Anthony Bourdain when I wrote this review of a McDonalds on Haight St. Then there was the era of too many Medium posts. Very occasionally, I’ll write something completely as myself.
But if I’m honest, it’s a little bit hard to breathe these days. Inspiration has not come easy. I can’t be the only one. We should take a moment to inhale. And exhale. And do it again.