Dating Mr. Strunk and Mr. White


I first met Mr. Strunk (Jr) and Mr. Write as an obedient English major. They wore a handsome understated gray colored hardcover and, after we spent a few days together, they retreated to a side table while I wrote an ambitious first novel to earn my undergraduate degree.  I took a look at that poor manuscript a while ago and it’s clear my relationship with the gentlemen was superficial at the least.  Like a lot of the boys that passed through my life at the time, our engagement was transitory but remained impressionable. They popped up at odd times when I tried to untangle my habitual convoluted sentences.  They embarrassed me in my misuse of lay and lie, that and which. But the years passed by and I developed my own guide that pushed against what I came to think of as S&W’s old-fashion, limiting stuffiness. My transgressions with all the other boys I’ve known made good copy, though I can’t think of a one I’d want to see again. Recently, because of Clare, I decided to look up S&W. I should have done it years ago.

The reason Clare brought us together is because I’m rewriting most of the stories since I’ve come clean that they’re memoir, not fiction as originally conceived. At the moment, S&W is turned to Chapter V:  An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders). I always thought I didn’t have to worry about style, especially voice. They’re the attributes readers and editors praised in me.  But the Clare stories are forcing me to reevaluate what I took for granted, not because fiction and memoir require different ways of writing (good writing never differs from genres to genres), but because I want to write them the best I can.  That’s not to say I didn’t strive for this with other works. It means I am more aware of what I am doing and what I am writing about.

In these rewrites, I am seeing how impetuous I’ve been, guided more by emotions than a deliberate plan (3. Work from a suitable design). In the five stories reworked so far, I’ve been guided by 6. Do not overwrite that required many sentences to go on a diet.  So far I’ve read 5. Revise and rewrite so much I’ve commit it to memory. I’ve revised all my life–writing is rewriting, I tell students and myself all the time. Guided by S&W, I’ve become remorseless and aggressive. I tore one story completely apart (“Moms at Rest”–it’s now “Three Houses”) to center on what the story was really about–the impact of my mom’s drinking on me, the part it played in instilling a fear of fully connecting with anyone, even Clare.  Three other stories expanded (“Barefoot Girls”, “Swans” and “The Sacred Beauty of the Unknown World”) to reveal what I didn’t fully understand about them. As S&W tells me, I’ve removed my emotions in creating them to follow the design I now know I want and have drawn out.

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pat willard

Grew up in Philadelphia. Live in Brooklyn. Written four books best described as about memory and cultural history, food and some pretty good recipes. Works in progress may be viewed at

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