"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

Sound Sense

In pointing us to a "new sentence" from Annie Proulx, Sam Anderson at The New York Times Magazine writes:

Proulx is particularly good with how her sentences sound. She understands that words are not antiseptic little meaning-cubes to be stacked neatly into sturdy towers of logic. They are wild; they make noise. They force the humans reading them to slurp and click and hoot and pop and tap their tongues. Such sounds, combined carefully, can carry their own meaning.

Give Sam's piece a read, and then perhaps click on over to this 2013 Sentence x Sentence entry about the sounds playing meaningfully in another brief arrangement ... 

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

A Sentence as Clean as a Bone

Q: What are your first drafts like?

JAMES BALDWIN: They are overwritten. Most of the rewrite, then, is cleaning. Don’t describe it, show it. That’s what I try to teach all young writers — take it out! Don’t describe a purple sunset, make me see that it is purple.

Q: As your experience about writing accrues, what would you say increases with knowledge?

BALDWIN: You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.

from The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 78

How Are Those Things Connected?

From a patient look into the history of our relationship with opening sentences comes the following: 

Very often, a successful literary first sentence involves some sort of odd yoking. The beginning of Orwell’s Coming Up For Air is typical: “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.” Not only is there the vagueness of “the idea”; there’s also the question of just what sort of fascinating idea could come from false teeth. Marquez, whose sentences always make the lists, is a master of this technique. His most celebrated novel, 100 Years of Solitude, opens, “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Sure, there’s killing going on, but what you want to know about is a simple childhood experience. His second most celebrated novel, Love in the Time of Cholera begins, “It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Again, the mystery is human, slight. Like with Orwell’s teeth—how are those things connected?

Read the whole history at Electric LitIn Search of the Novel’s First Sentence: A Secret History, by Andrew Heisel.

The Sentence and Your Discontent

Sometimes it’s just the tiniest kernel of something you enjoyed writing. Then, once you put it down on the page, and write it and rewrite it, it’s actually your own discontent with it that, in some slow mysterious way, urges it to higher ground. And often it will do so in ways that surprise you.

—George Saunders, in "George Saunders: On Story," by Redglass Pictures



"That's What Gets Me In"

Writing conducted at the sentence level has always made perfect sense to me. Allan Gurganus put it very well. He was sitting on a panel on the novel with Stanley Elkin and several others, and there was all this talk about theories of novels and he said, There are those of us who are still loyal at the level of the sentence. That’s the great attraction and motivation. That’s what gets me in, writing or reading. Though it’s unlikely you’ll write something nobody has ever heard of, the way you have a chance to compete is in the way you say it. Now I’ve been writing for almost twenty years, and I still feel the same way. That is how I assemble stories—me and a hundred million other people—at the sentence level. Not by coming up with a sweeping story line.

—Amy Hempl, in The Paris Review

Extruding What Is Incipient

Gordon Lish talks about “consecution,” about pulling the language and subject matter out of the previous sentence. Each sentence, even down to its syllabic and acoustical shape, embryonically contains the next. I don’t do it at that microscopic level, but I like to work incrementally with plot, extruding what is, I believe, incipient. Just accruing one small detail after another. The big stuff takes care of itself. What seems like audacious structural or narratorial swerves often aren’t, at the time of construction—they’re just the next step you need to take.

—Colin Barrett, "The Right Kind of Damage" (Interview), The Paris Review

Getting Things in Order

Writing, we all know, is not just about end result, the final output; it is also about the process that leads to the result. All attempts at getting the words in their right, their inevitable-feeling order must likewise count as writing. In this regard, I often think of Frank Budgen's account of meeting James Joyce on the streets of Zurich and finding the Master quite pleased with himself. Budgen asked him if the work were going well, and Joyce answered that it was indeed: he had given the day to getting the words he had chosen for a particular sentence into the right sequence. He thought he had finally found it

—Sven Birkerts, "And What Is Writing" (AGNI 70)

Where It All Begins

So what then explains the success of All the Light We Cannot See? It all, I would argue, comes down to [Anthony] Doerr’s sentences....

[A]s anyone who works daily with language knows, all ideas, all stories and plots and characters that appear in a work of prose, originate first in the sentences, in our choices of nouns and verbs.

Whether or not you've read Anthony Doerr's latest work, I highly recommend reading Michael Bourne's appreciation of it: A World Made of Words: On Anthony Doerr’s Nouns and Verbs


SxS: The Irretrievable and Unnamed

For the past couple of years, just before the holiday break, I have read Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" aloud with my students. As we give voice to the story, passing the reading around the room, I ask my students to note with a pen any of Capote's sentences that they admire and find particularly effective (beautiful, memorable). We finish the story, sigh, and then go around the room again, this time reading out loud only the sentences that drew special attention. To hear the constructions gather in the air — these selected bests, free of their narrative context but reactivating in the imagination moments in Capote's story — is a special pleasure. Why? I suppose the discrete sentences make me feel closer to the making; I hear the pieces rather than thinking of the whole. 

This year, as I drove home from class, I was considering the design and operation of the sentence that delivers the unforgettably affecting loss in the story. Buddy is recalling, in continued present tense, when he learned that his friend had died, on a "leafless birdless" November morning:

A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. 

The effect of the sentence-ending simile draws my attention first. It may not be the freshest image, but contextually, it carries great meaning. Buddy and his friend have a long history of making kites for each other for Christmas and, in a pasture below their house, flying them together — "feeling them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind" (read that aloud, and feel the satisfyingly erratic tension on the line!).

Then I pan back to appreciate the complete sentence. The first half presents an arrival, a reception and confirmation. But the phrasing is nonspecific: "a piece of news" and "some secret vein." We don't see or hear about the message itself. It comes in whatever words, somehow expected.

And then, immediately, something — also vague — goes, something ineffable: "an irreplaceable part of myself." There is no defining this loss. How can you possibly put words to what's now not there, not anywhere, this deeply personal, private connection and history, this fundamental sense of stability and home in another person? 

So we have an image. The closing simile works against the nonspecific language, or emerges from it. We see the picture, as simple as it is, and by seeing it, we feel it. The kite is pushed this way and that, "loose," upward and away in the wind, trailing its broken string. What we feel is the irretrievability. It will never be back. We hold the other end of that piece of string as Buddy holds the "piece of news." Every moment, the part of himself that is no longer part of himself moves farther away. 

Not until I had spent a while feeling this irretrievability and beginning to write about it did I realize that Buddy — or Capote — never gives the friend's name. Buddy is seven in the story. She is "sixty-something." "We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember," Buddy tells us near the start. "We are each other's best friend." Every reference in the story is to "we" or "us" or "she" or "my friend." Had I forgotten this absence of a name? Or this avoidance? Reading through again, I see my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.... The discovery compounds the loss. 

Twitter and the Sentence

Twitter engages the part of me that makes sentences. I try to shape a sentence that works. And I know this because I sometimes put sentences out there that don't really work. With most other forms—if it's good enough, it's good enough. But I read poetry regularly. And poetry is where I see that every single line has a certain punch and precision to it. Being on Twitter has allowed me to participate in a similar kind of practice. When you're writing fiction and longform prose, you think about the best sentences, of course, and you work on them. But when you're tweeting, the sentences are isolated, they're naked, and so there is that much more scrutiny on how they work.

—Teju Cole
"The Boundary-Pushing Novelist Who’s Made Twitter His New Medium"
Wired Magazine

Reading Ahead

A good pairing:

The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed....

from Reading: The Struggle, by Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books blog

We know a great deal about the present iteration of the reading brain and all of the resources it has learned to bring to the act of reading. However, we still know very little about the digital reading brain. My major worry is that, confronted with a digital glut of immediate information that requires and receives less and less intellectual effort, many new (and many older) readers will have neither the time nor the motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read. The omnipresence of multiple distractions for attention—and the brain’s own natural attraction to novelty—contribute to a mindset toward reading that seeks to reduce information to its lowest conceptual denominator. Sound bites, text bites, and mind bites are a reflection of a culture that has forgotten or become too distracted by and too drawn to the next piece of new information to allow itself time to think. 

from Our ‘Deep Reading’ Brain: Its Digital Evolution Poses Questions, by Maryanne Wolf, Nieman Reports

SxS: Thirteen Words from Jean Toomer

This sentence, from Jean Toomer's "Carma," stopped me, and had me rereading aloud:

No rain has come to take the rustle from the falling sweet-gum leaves.

Thirteen words. Say them aloud and you can’t help hearing the path inward that is opened by those three iambs, a trot of monosyllabic words (“No rain has come to take”) — and then the interruption of “rustle.” Here, in the center, we hear the sound that persists in the drought. Toomer's engagement of our mind's ear then leads to something for the eye — an image that fills the absence of “no rain" with a different kind of falling. The compound specificity of "sweet-gum leaves" is conspicuous, and their action is ongoing; these leaves don’t leave but continue downward, rustling, beyond the period. 

SxS: How Did I Get Here from There?

Johnny Hake, the eponymous thief in John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” has just returned home in the dark from his burglary in the bedroom of Carl and Sheila Warburton:

Back in my own dark kitchen, I drank three or four glasses of water. I must have stood by the kitchen sink for a half hour or longer before I thought of looking in Carl’s wallet. I went into the cellarway and shut the cellar door before I turned on the light. There was a little over nine hundred dollars. I turned the light off and went back into the dark kitchen. Oh, I never knew that a man could be so miserable and that the mind could open up so many chambers and fill them with self-reproach! Where were the trout streams of my youth, and other innocent pleasures? The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins — your head would swim — and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure. I was crying.

I should have warned you: after you lift the lid on this paragraph and pour the water into Johnny at the top, some of it will come leaking out the bottom, in tears. In between, though, how expertly Johnny and you are moved under Cheever’s direction. Likely, you’re not a housebreaker, but don’t tell me you haven’t been caught in one of those complicated emotional binds that has prompted you to remember, longingly, and uselessly, when everything was much simpler. And certainly you’ve confronted the accompanying question, How did I get here from there?

I enjoy considering the spaces Cheever moves us into and out of, from the dark, still, troubled, enclosed present to the pungent, open, vibrant settings of irretrievable childhood. And I appreciate the play with fullness — full is that wallet, and the woods and waters of long-ago, but filling also are rooms of the mind, “with self-reproach.”

What most draws my interest, though, is the close of the paragraph, in particular that 52-word fragment that helps us break with Hake into the fresh outdoor freedom of his youth, before we are returned to the dark kitchen with the three-word, grieving endpoint: “I was crying.”

The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins—your head would swim—and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure.

Cheever interrupts the fragment twice. First, having brought to our noses that “wet-leather smell” of the rushing streams and rain-sharpened forest, and the “grassy breath of Holsteins” in the warm air blowing over the baseball field, he takes us one step further in to Johnny’s boyhood with the second-person invitation: “your head would swim.” For this moment, it’s as if Hake is talking directly to us; we’re nearly there with him. And then we’re withdrawing; our mental swimming leads back to the water, the brooks, which are full. I find it fascinating that right here Cheever inserts the second interruption: “or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen.” It’s an explanatory note, a reminder from the despairing present, separating the brooks from what they were full of, or imagined to be full of — trout, that innocent treasure. Sunken then, and moreso now. (The intruding parentheses, by the way, deliver a clever suggestion of Johnny’s present entrapment.) Though just delightfully aswim, we’ve got a kitchen floor under us, and darkness around us, and tears. How deep a sense of loss opens at Johnny’s moment of gain (nine hundred dollars!).  

This I steal for admiration: that the most complicated construction in the paragraph is a fragment depicting a simpler time. And what follows it is the simplest of complete sentences, from the most complicated of predicaments.