"He Taught Me How Sentences Worked"

Q: Did any writer influence you more than others?

JOAN DIDION: I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they're perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

—from The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 71

The Apprentice Years

If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.

—Oliver Sacks, from "The Creative Self" 

William Maxwell would agree. And so would William Zinsser.

Trying to Figure Out How They Did It

We all need models, whatever art or craft we're trying to learn. Bach needed a model; Picasso needed a model; they didn't spring full-blown as Bach and Picasso. This is especially true of writers. Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S.J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S.J. Perelman....

Students often feel guilty about modeling their writing on someone else's writing. They think it's unethical — which is commendable. Or they're afraid they'll lose their own identity. The point, however, is that we eventually move beyond our models; we take what we need and then we shed those skins and become who we are supposed to become. But nobody will write well unless he gets into his ear and into his metabolism a sense of how the language works and what it can be made to do.

—William Zinsser, from Writing to Learn

The Professional Reader

We all read from different places, different backgrounds, and my meeting with Proust or Woolf, or Lydia Davis or J. M. Coetzee, will not be yours, nor should it be. On the other hand I do believe reading is an active skill, an art even, certainly not a question of passive absorption. Borges would often remark that he was first and foremost a professional reader, not a writer, and he meant the claim as a boast, not a confession....

—Tim Parks, How I Read

Not Progress, but Circulation

A couple of years ago, I designed and taught a nonfiction-writing course I called Object Studies, compelled by poet Heather McHugh’s reflection that, depending on the viewer, “every object has a field of force.”

In the past week, I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a related field of force in my own reading. It all began with that suede glove on the front-hall table ... 

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Have Sentences, Will Travel

"In encouraging my students to join me in collecting sentences, I’m hoping they will establish a kind of associative network, so that their consideration of one sentence will lead to comparison to others and an expanding and informed artistic appreciation on this fundamental level. I’m reminded of and motivated by a remark by Robert Frost. “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” he wrote. “We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A). We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.

"My thing is to get among the sentences...."

Read my complete post on the blog of the Piper Center for Creative Writing, at Arizona State University. 

A Course in Being an Accomplice

There is a writing course I would like to design and teach whose title I would lift from Virginia Woolf’s essay “How Should One Read a Book?” and in which we, the students and I, would not write — at all. The purpose of the course would be described pretty well by this excerpt from Woolf’s essay (recently featured here):

Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.

Doubtless, there are writing teachers out there with this opportunity, or something like it. (I would like to know of them, please!) In my course I would successfully redirect the urge to write into reading, into practicing reading as sensitively, responsively, and accurately as possible, both in performance (aloud) and privately, as silent observers of language and its effects. I’ve always liked Zadie Smith’s comparison of a reader to “the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own hard-won skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.” (See “Fail Better,” published in The Guardian, 1/13/07.)

In other words, I would give much more room, all available room, to what I teach, in various ways but always first and foremost, when I teach any writing course. In this ideal environment, I would feel no pressure to move students toward their own crafting on the page. We would work mostly on the air, from the eye through the voice to the ear. We would together discover and come to understand — come to know through our various senses — the materials with which writers work, or have worked, and be able to discern how they succeed with these materials. And we would compile a mental library of instructional moments, instances of successful crafting that we have committed to memory.

Along the way, for support and sustenance, I’m sure I would revisit the experience Francine Prose describes in her very useful book Reading Like a Writer:

I liked my students, who were often so eager, bright, and enthusiastic that it took me years to notice how much trouble they had in reading a fairly simple short story. Almost simultaneously, I was struck by how little attention they had been taught to pay to the language, to the actual words and sentences that a writer had used. Instead, they had been encouraged to form strong, critical, and often negative opinions of geniuses who had been read with delight for centuries before they were born. They had been instructed to prosecute or defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writers’ origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds….

No wonder my students found it so stressful to read! And possibly because of the harsh judgments they felt required to make about fictional characters and their creators, they didn’t seem to like reading, which also made me worry for them and wonder why they wanted to become writers. I asked myself how they planned to learn to write, since I had always thought that other learned, as I had, from reading.

Responding to what my students seemed to need, I began to change the way I taught. No more general discussions of this character or that plot turn. No more attempts to talk about how it felt to read Borges or Poe or to describe the experience of navigating the fantastic fictional worlds they created…. I organized the classes around the more pedestrian, halting method of beginning at the beginning, lingering over every word, every phrase, every image, considering how it enhanced and contributed to the story as a whole.  


(As for being an author’s “fellow-worker and accomplice,” consider this.)

“A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.”

INTERVIEWER:  Virginia Woolf was an influence in your early work, wasn’t she?

WILLIAM MAXWELL:  Oh, yes. She’s there. Everybody’s there. My first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, is a compendium of all the writers I loved and admired. In a symposium at Smith College, Saul Bellow said something that describes it to perfection. He said, “A writer is a reader who is moved to emulation.” What I wrote when I was very young had some of the characteristic qualities of every writer I had any feeling for. It takes a while before that admiration sinks back and becomes unconscious. The writers stay with you for the rest of your life. But at least they don’t intrude and become visible to the reader.

From The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 71

"How did this thing come to be?"

As a writing teacher and coach — one who, twenty years ago, fresh out of college, stepped with novelist John Irving sentence by sentence through three revisions of the heavy manuscript for his novel A Son of the Circus (I was his assistant) — I’ve lately been stepping around with Verlyn Klinkenborg’s remark, “We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape of the sentence. But we can see the residue of those decisions.” AIrving’s assistant, I could see a lot of the decisions leading to the final shapes of sentences, and I suppose this and my subsequent experience as an editor has compelled me recently to design ways in which an apprentice writer might at least get the (imagined) experience of confronting the decisions behind model sentences, or may easily demonstrate — and in order to demonstrate, to see, first — his or her own decisions in crafting.

I call one exercise “Sentence Evolutions.” I will be presenting the practice to teachers in the Needham (MA) Public Schools today, and I look forward to writing more about them here. Right now, though, time allows only for sharing an excerpt from a piece from which I derive some support for my endeavors. Gary Lutz is clearly as admiring of and invested in good sentence-making as I am. I’m grateful for his words.

From "The Sentence is a Lonely Place," a lecture by Gary Lutz, published in The Believer, January 2009:

It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books…. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy…. The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained — as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.

And as I encountered any such sentence, the question I would ask myself in marvelment was: how did this thing come to be what it now is?

Walter Mosley on two sentences by Raymond Chandler

"Forty-four years ago, I came across a passage that changed my life. I was teenager then, reading just about anything that struck my fancy. In those days I was pretty much an unconscious reader taking in one book after another looking for good stories. When I was finished with one novel it receded into the background and made way for the next. I had no notion of becoming a writer. Writers were, for me, long dead practitioners of a lost art.

"And so it went. I read, let's say, Treasure Island by Stevenson, then Damien by Hesse, and on to The Long Goodbye. One page after the other went by and I was as happy (and as unaware) as a clam. And then two sentences, toward the end of the novel, shook me from my waking slumber. It was like a one-two combination punch....

"Those 24 words alerted me to the potential power of writing."

Read about those 24 words at The Atlantic.