The Atlantic

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.
Source: 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 hasgradually learned to pilot larger and more complicated boats. Chung seesfear and reverence, and rewards bravery, humility, and, above all, patience.

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