E. B. White’s Lesson for Debut Writers: It’s Okay to Start Small

Nicole Chung explains how an essay about sailing taught her to embrace her fears as she worked up to writing her memoir, All You Can Ever Know.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

In her debut memoir, All You Can Ever Know, Nicole Chung tells a complicated origin story, exploring the questions raised by the circumstances of her birth. Throughout her young life, people wondered out loud—often clumsily, sometimes cruelly—how a child of Korean descent came to be raised by white parents in small-town Oregon. Chung sometimes wondered, too. But there were limits to her curiosity. She already had one loving family, and it seemed either impossible or unnecessary to go looking for the strangers tied to her by blood. It wasn’t until she was in her late 20s, pregnant with a child of her own, that Chung became determined to go looking for her birth parents. That momentous decision sparked the journey of this book—an exacting, deeply personal inquiry into the mysteries of family, biology, and race.

In a conversation for this series, Chung described a different sort of big decision: her choice to wait for years to tell this story. To illustrate, she shared a favorite passage from E. B. White’s essay “The Sea and the Wind That Blows,” in which White describes himself as a passionate but hapless sailor who has gradually learned to pilot larger and more complicated boats. Chung sees aspects of her own approach in this: She came to writing late, working up confidence through a series of increasingly ambitious essays and editing projects. For her, the blank page is much like White’s sea—a partner that inspires fear and reverence, and rewards bravery, humility, and, above all, patience.

Nicole Chung is the editor in chief of Catapult and a former managing editor of The Toast. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Longreads, and other publications. We spoke by phone.

Nicole Chung: I grew up in Oregon, two or three hours from the Oregon coast. My grandparents had a boat—not a sailboat, but a small fishing boat we used for fishing and crabbing every summer in the bay, and in lakes and rivers closer to where we lived. So I grew up spending a lot of time on the water, even if I’d never been on a proper sailboat before. I think this experience must have been what started my obsession with sailing, a fascination that lasted throughout my youth.

I loved nautical stories growing up, anything that featured characters going on a long journey across unfamiliar waters: books like Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I was a girl from a working-class family, several hours from the ocean, but for a few years there I was convinced my destiny was to experience something like the good, non-tragic parts of that White Squall movie starring Scott Wolf. When I was 15, my Girl Scout troop spent a week learning to crew a historic wooden sailing ship that sailed from Port Townsend. It’s not like we were real sailors. We did help the crew, working hard every day, but they had to tell us what to do. Still, we spent five amazing days sailing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and it felt like the adventure I’d always wanted.

It wasn’t until later that sailing became important to me in a different way, a kind of guiding metaphor for the work I do as a writer. It started with an essay by E. B. White, a writer I’d loved all my life, beginning with books like Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t just in awe of—and yet able to take for granted—the beautiful way White constructs his sentences. But when I was in my 20s, I came across “The Sea and the Wind that Blows,” an essay about sailing that I love for the way it makes me think of my own obsessions, how I started writing, and how I still approach every essay.

It’s about White’s career as a solitary, not-especially-skilled sailor, and how he’s still fearful every time he sets out on a new voyage. “I liked to sail alone,” White writes. “Lacking instruction, I invented ways of getting things done, and I usually ended by doing them in a rather queer fashion, and so did not learn to sail properly, and still I cannot sail well, although I have been at it all my life.” He talks about being in his 20s and 30s before realizing he was going about things the wrong way, with no clear idea how to read a chart or properly rig a sail, hurling himself at the water with the “wariness and the ignorance of the early explorers.” But White feels compelled to sail anyway, despite his clumsiness and lack of skill. The piece is about overcoming the fear that comes along with that.

For me, it’s hard to read this essay without thinking about my own relationship to writing. That’s especially true in this passage:

My earliest boats were so small that when the wind failed, or when I failed, I could switch to manual control—I could paddle or row home. But then I graduated to boats that only the wind was strong enough to move. When I first dropped off my mooring in such a boat, I was an hour getting up the nerve to cast off the pennant. Even now, with a thousand little voyages notched in my belt, I still I feel a memorial chill on casting off, as the gulls jeer and the empty mainsail claps.

White describes how he progressed from smaller, more manageable boats to bigger boats and more challenging voyages. I think that’s what writers do, too.

Like White and his boats, I started small. I began writing mostly for myself, not really trying to publish during the entirety of my 20s, despite writing almost every day. I told myself there was no way I could ever make a living as a writer, so I would just claim writing as a hobby. Even in college, I never actually took a nonfiction class, though I did take some fiction and poetry courses. I’d never tried to write nonfiction at all, beyond the daily diary I’ve kept since kindergarten. I suppose my journals were forays into nonfiction, but I didn’t really think of them that way. (I was so glad to have them later—they were such helpful sources to go back to as I wrote my book.)

I joined a nonfiction writing group in my mid-20s. It was a period of my life before kids, before grad school, when I had more time—I just wanted to pursue different things I was interested in, so I joined a writing group and also took ballroom-dancing lessons. When I found that I really liked writing essays, it was kind of a shock. I kept writing and sharing with a few people at a time, but I would never have thought to publish those pieces. I’ve still never published them. Getting your sea legs is not a bad metaphor for what I was doing at that time. I was standing there, dipping my toes in the water, not really sure if I wanted to jump in. I didn’t pitch or publish my first piece online until I was 30 or 31.

I think it’s useful for everyone, no matter what stage of their career they’re at, to know it’s okay to write for yourself first—sometimes only for yourself. There are going to be things that you might need to work out on the page, alone, before you’re ready to share them more widely. I don’t think there’s always a rush. It’s okay to take the longer voyage.

I’m publishing my debut this year, at 37, and in publishing sometimes I feel like I’m surrounded by young geniuses. My editor is younger than I am, and has already written an acclaimed novel. I’m not really a late bloomer, but I think of myself that way sometimes—especially because I have published so many emerging writers at The Toast and at Catapult, many of whom started a full decade before I did. Ours is, I think, an industry that praises and rewards bravery and spunk (and youth, too). For good reason—writers who are fearless, who know they belong and rarely doubt themselves, have a kind of confidence and magnetism I sometimes wish I had.

At the same time, while I can recognize and admire fearlessness in others, I suspect I wouldn’t be the writer I am or have the career I have now if I hadn’t started small, if I hadn’t taken some time to do it alone for a while, slowly working up my nerve, testing my luck in little ways before I reached for loftier things. I remember the fear and the doubt, sometimes still feel it—and maybe at times it has held me back. But it also keeps me humble, makes me appreciate where I am, ensures I won’t take anything for granted. Even now, I still feel anxious each time I open up a blank document and see a page waiting to be filled. White’s anxiety about sailing stayed with him, too, and I love the way he captures the feelings of inadequacy that begin every voyage: “Even now, with a thousand little voyages notched in my belt, I still feel a memorial chill on casting off.” That so perfectly describes how I feel every time I start a new piece.

My book is out soon. If you’d asked me last year or the year before, I would have said something much calmer and more confident about it. But right now I’m scared every single moment of every day. I think no matter how long I do it, no matter how many pieces I publish, there will linger this sense that I’m reaching for something bigger than I was meant to. But in the end, of course, I tell myself: You can do this. You can take that assignment. You can venture a little more outside your comfort zone.

I don’t think that fear, that “memorial chill,” is always a bad thing—it can be healthy and productive. It lets you know that you’re doing something with high stakes. It reminds you that you have a responsibility to do your best work, and that you should approach it with respect. Still, there are times when it’s good to listen to the feeling that you aren’t quite ready to take a subject on. I was not ready to write this particular book in my 20s. Of course, some of the experiences were still taking place; I obviously couldn’t have written about searching for my birth family before it happened. But apart from that practical concern, I think I needed those years to think about it and figure out what I really wanted to do—and if I really wanted to tell this deeply personal story. At the time it was happening, I wasn’t even ready to think about sharing it with the wider world. It’s taken me a lot of time to get comfortable, working up my nerve and testing my luck in small ways.

I think the fear I’m talking about, the good kind, is more related to having big goals and big dreams as a writer. Maybe thinking that they’re not possible, or feeling like they aren’t a given, at least—and then doing them anyway. That kind of fear has been a mark of my career and something that I’m honestly a little bit grateful for.

One last thing about White’s essay: It’s wonderful, though it’s also very old-school when you think about it—I’m sure he’s assuming that his audience is made up mostly of white men. That’s kind of annoying, but it’s also one of the reasons I’ve always gotten such a kick out of the essay. I’m sure when White was writing, he never thought about a young Asian woman who’s barely ever sailed latching on to this piece and quoting it to people all the time. But that’s what happened, and that’s the power of a good piece of writing. No one can tell you it’s not for you.