"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

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

 

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

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. 

SxS: Together and Apart

The other day, while stopped at a red light, I watched a woman descend the steps of a city bus carrying a large, cased instrument before her. On the sidewalk, she strapped the instrument to her back and adjusted it, and then she walked off. The light turned, and I turned to trying to recall a sentence I once knew.  

When I got home, I found it. Sofia Haines, a talented student from my "Emulations" class last fall at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, wrote it. Or maybe I should say she arrived at it: it followed several pages of character description in an early draft of a story she was writing.

He had often watched her lug the hefty instrument on and off the bus they both took each Tuesday to the center of town, where he went to his grandfather’s general store and she to her cello lesson. 

Now here was — and is — a beginning! A story is launched. The language throughout is simple; there is no straining for effect. There is, rather, clarity and a careful ordering of information. Notice how the immediately established point of view (“He had often watched her”) gains more and more narrative context as the sentence unfolds and we pan back. Following the hinge of that single, central comma, we peek at how different his Tuesdays in town are from hers. Learning of their distinctly separate destinations, I hear that "often" (from the start) a bit differently — I hear in it a kind of attentive longing he may be feeling. I can't know yet if my reading is accurate; I must read on. 

Every word in the sentence has a job and does that job well. I admire how Sofia withholds until the end just what that large instrument is, sustaining our curiosity. And I particularly like "on and off" for how the colloquial phrase makes me see him, regularly: he is on the bus already when she gets on; and, when the bus arrives in town, he is either behind her in the center aisle as the passengers file off, or (my preference) he is already on the sidewalk and glancing back at her — and at her cello.

Such efficient exposition. He had often watched her. Soon he will do more, won’t he?

Sentence Attention

I'm delighted by such sentence attention: 

In this spirit, with admiration for how time can pass vividly in a short space, I share another that my eyes traveled again recently: 

Most of the dandelions had changed from suns to moons.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Know any other sentences that operate in similar fashion? If so, please share! 

The Comedian and the College Applicant | Part One

I didn't expect to see so many parallels between the way a comedian works on a joke and the process I've developed to coach high school students in the writing of effective and memorable college-application essays.

Read More

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. 

SxS: Lighting the Way

by ALLAN REEDER

Into the file marked “spatial extension" I delightedly slide the opening sentence of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.

Notice how this space takes shape in our imagination. McCarthy guides our attention from the flame to its reflection in the mirror (“pierglass," by the way, suggesting that we see windows on either side of the mirror), and then, when this doubled image (twice) wobbles and stills in response to the push of air from John Grady Cole’s entrance, to the hall and, finally, to the door into it. That the gentle wind must travel across the room, between the door and the flame, prompts our sense of spatial concreteness and dimension. The place is real.

As a side note, the doubling effect of the mirror reminds me of this patient passage through darkness from Paul Harding’s Tinkers:

George sat upright and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood up and slid a foot forward into the total darkness of the floor, testing for the edge of the cable rug or a stray shoe that might trip him. He shuffled toward where the door was. He held his bitten hand limply above his head, as if he were crossing a river, and patted at the dark with his good hand until he felt the corner of his mother’s bureau, which stood to the left of the door. He opened the door onto deeper darkness still. Rather than risking the hallway and the stairs, George tapped his fingers along the top of the bureau until he felt the lamp. He lifted the glass and set it down and felt for the box of matches. He held the matchbox against his stomach with the heel of his bitten hand and struck a match. The top of the bureau appeared and the image of him holding the match appeared in the lamp glass.

And the sustained darkness in which George searches, followed by the sudden light of the match and the reappearance of objects, reminds me of what Elaine Scarry calls “radiant ignition” … which an image from Dracula had me writing about here. Oh, the conversation that goes on and on among books!

Lessons from The Cartoon Bureau

Cody Walker, in The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bureau:

"Inexperienced writers sometimes imagine that good writing comes from good ideas. But that’s not right: good writing comes from good sentences. It comes from caring about sentence construction: the rhythm of the clauses, the placement of the predicate. And working on captions—fiddling with punctuation and modifiers—reinforces this lesson wonderfully. Any sentence that aspires to artfulness—that is, any sentence that you might want to read out loud or share with a friend—makes a kind of gesture (and, in this way, distinguishes itself from the dead-on-arrival sentences often found in textbooks and, I’m sorry to say, student essays). The sentence may raise its (figurative) arms; it may shrug; it may snarl. Whatever the case, it captures an attitude—and it does so efficiently and memorably. Just as good captions do."

Read more.

SxS: From Beginnings to Ends to In-Betweens

We open Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and read:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

So much to enjoy about these two sentences, which constitute the first paragraph of the novel and, in opening our introduction to Professor Pnin, provide a head-to-toe portrait of the man. One of the immediate effects for me is delight in Nabokov’s patient precision, which has me not so much reading the sentences as experiencing them. Pnin is traveling on that train, and I am traveling as well, with expectation, from beginnings through middles to ends.

The playfulness with beginnings and ends is of course explicit in the verbs of the second sentence: Pnin “began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his … but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” We leave the station at the dome (“impressively”) and arrive at the feet (“disappointingly”).

Now take a look back at the opening sentence and see that it, too, is built for arrival, but of a different kind. We begin with “the elderly passenger,” isolated for consideration by our narrator, and isolated as well by those empty seats around him, but not until we’ve reached the end — and have experienced the emphatic drum roll of “none other than,” a moment of withholding — do we have a name for the man, professional title included.

In each case we are in a different place come the period; we have traveled and arrived. The sentence itself is an act of discovery (for us), movement toward revelation.

What has been revealed, interestingly, is quite a lot of in-between about Pnin: He’s elderly, but if you get close enough — step inside that first set of parentheses — you’ll see the “infantile absence of eyebrows.” He is “ideally bald,” with additional features that our narrator modifies as “apish,” “thick,” “strong-man,” and yet look at those “spindly legs” and “frail-looking, feminine feet.” (At the close of the next paragraph of the novel we will learn that “except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself.” He’s not only physically composed of both the masculine and the feminine; he’s physically positioned between the masculine and the feminine.) 

And naturally, as a traveler on that moving train, Pnin is in an in-between place. I want to say that Nabokov promptly places us in a kind of in-between place as well with the repetition of the demonstrative “that”: “that inexorably moving railway coach,” “that great brown dome of his.” We’ve only just begun this novel; we don’t know anything, really, about this train or this particular man on it; but in these instances we’re spoken to as if we do know. We’re at once distant, observing, and close, knowing. 

That’s where Nabokov wants us: we’re about to know something more that will make us understand what’s especially inexorable about that train, and that will worry “that great brown dome.” We’ll arrive at the knowledge before Pnin does:

"Now a secret must be imparted," Nabokov writes at the start of paragraph three. "Professor Pnin was on the wrong train." 

That’s a whole new kind of in-between. We read on, inexorably.

(For more from the Characters-on-Trains file, click here.)

SxS: Want Character? Look Around

by ALLAN REEDER


It’s one thing to delight in moves on the page performed by a writer whose work you’ve pulled from your bookshelf. You never met the writer, but the book has been within reach, likely for years, because you know that inside it, among other things, are moments that please you, that keep pleasing you, and that reacquaint you with admiration for this art. But that’s a distant delight compared with what comes from the more magical event of holding pages from a young student of yours and seeing on them a degree of skill and vision that not only exceeds your teacherly hopes but that has you thinking you’d better make some room on your bookshelf. 

For instance, this memorable passage from the point of view of a character named Sister Columbine, and from the capacious imagination of a past writing student of mine, Kaiyuh Cornberg:

Some of the angels painted on the church ceiling wear their robes off the shoulder, and naturally none of them wear winter clothes. In the summertime, when I gaze up at them, they look cool, even through the hot layers of rising incense. In the winter their clothes, or lack of them, bring goose bumps to my arms; they look as though they might freeze and fall off the plaster. In the dark of the night mass, the candles’ arrangement casts shadows across the ceiling so that some angels, at the dome’s pinnacle, are always in shadow.

This comes from a long story titled “Departures.” (I write that sentence and think: Well, aren’t we all in a long story that we might call “Departures”?) For Sister Columbine, who is one of the younger nuns in a far-north convent, impressionable and very observant of her fellow habit-wearers and their habits, the question of whether to stay or to go never goes. There’s plenty more to the narrative, of course, but that’s enough context. I hear Flannery O’Connor: “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” (“Writing Short Stories”)

Go back to the excerpt and maybe you can sense the emotional undercurrent to Sister Columbine’s observations. See how she sees, both concretely and in her imagination — and note that the seeing she does in the church is not with bowed head but with curious upward gaze. See the painted angels with their robes “off the shoulder.” (Elsewhere in the story we learn that Sister Columbine loves to be the one to place the food orders for the convent because to do so she must use the one telephone, and “[t]he vent on the floor under the phone box hisses the hottest air in the entire convent.” She admits to us: “I hold one foot over the vent to let the warmth blow up my skirt.”) See the cold and possibly falling angels in her mind. And see, ultimately, that the highest angels remain unseeable.

"Place … has the most delicate control over character," I now hear Eudora Welty remind us. "[B]y confining character, it defines it." ("Place in Fiction")

Before our departure from this excerpt, let’s also note how simple the framework is. The writer sees the angels on the ceiling in different seasons and at different times of the day — during summer, during winter, during the night mass. But that’s not right: Sister Columbine sees the angels in the different seasons and the different lights, and that makes all the difference. That’s empathic imagination at work, and it’s really not so simple.

But these are sentences from a young writer who knows that imagining another’s experience, specifically, is a kind of play. And who also knows that seeing is believing, is where it all starts and ends. Let’s give Flannery the last word: “For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” (“Writing Short Stories”)

SxS: The Space Between

I have just finished rereading Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story” and am happy to be reacquainted with the reasons I’ve considered it one of my favorite stories. (An additional reason, I’ve discovered, is not on the page but asleep in her crib as I write.) My admiration of the whole work — character, voice, structure, and more — makes my consideration of the interplay of two quiet sentences feel terribly insufficient. I’m going to delight over just a couple of small trees (well, there’s really only one tree, as you’ll see) and feel beholden to the extraordinary forest.

But Dubus wrote the sentences; he made them, and put them side by side, and put them in the story. And so on I go with my chosen task and my magnifying glass, offering the barest in narrative context … 

The wind has been blowing all night, until now:

I looked at the still maple near the window, and thought of the wind leaving farms and towns and the coast, going out over the sea to die on the waves. I smoked and gazed out the window.

Unremarkable these sentences seem, but the more time I spend with them, the more I admire what Dubus has done, even without reflection on how beautifully they operate in the story.

See how stillness — of the maple tree, first, and of the narrator with cigarette (Luke Ripley is his name), second — surrounds movement in this excerpt. (The repetition of “the window” makes this framing clear to the ear.) Now notice how the landscape of Luke’s thought expands from “farms” to “towns” to “the coast” to the open sea; there are no barriers for the departing wind. There’s a lovely tension here between not only stillness and movement but also internal and external spaces, and that includes the imagined (internal) image of the wind, or where it blows, and the concrete (external) looked-at object, that maple tree.

Let’s zoom in on where the first, longer sentence ends and the short second sentence begins. From a construction of thirty-one words organized in three balanced parts (see the placement of the commas) we enter a seven-word sentence whose only punctuation, the terminal comma, we reach promptly. Now hear the song in the final phrase of the first sentence — “over the sea to die on the waves” — and how it runs into the prosaic, factual, conciseness of “I smoked and gazed out the window.” Picture that free-flowing wind crossing vast open distances, and then the cigarette smoke collecting inside. Luke Ripley stands still in his smoke, looking through the window at that maple tree that also stands still, wind-less.

The trapped longing, even helplessness — the sense of being no greater than human — that I feel operating in this small sample fits the story, certainly. It also prompts me to envision the next time I will teach the story. I often make model sentences big by projecting them on a screen so that my students can join me in feeling closer to the functioning parts, and in turn more aware of the small but significant choices a writer has made. I imagine that the next time I teach “A Father’s Story” I will put my finger down on the space between these two sentences and say, “This is what we’re after.” Precisely here, in this absence that is transition, in this quiet movement from the internal life to the external reality, is evidence of the empathic imagination at work, the sensibility that a fiction-writer must practice in order to render character compellingly and authentically.

I need a word for the space between sentences.

SxS: Once More

by ALLAN REEDER


For a nonfiction-writing class I am teaching, I have gone once more to “Once More to the Lake,” by E.B. White, and I have been hanging around and turning with this sentence:

I kept remembering everything, lying in bed in the mornings — the small steamboat that had a long rounded stern like the lip of a Ubangi, and how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails, when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar, and how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night, and what it had felt like to think about girls then.

I’m drawn to how casually yet precisely the sentence depicts the movement of memory, of retrospective association. From “lying in bed in the mornings” we dash with a dash right to that steamboat, prosaically described; and then, as we enter memory, we enter the poetic: “how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails.” What most interests me, though, is how the rest of the sentence implicitly comments on how memory works.

We’ve seen the boat, its shape and its peaceful movement on the water in the silvered night. Now, stage set, we hear and we taste, in a rolling, unpunctuated list that shows how the remembering mind slides from one detail to the next, associating and collecting: “when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar.” How far in we’ve come from that initial, distant description, with the foreign simile (“like the lip of a Ubangi”); now we have memory on the tongue, live music in our ears.

But only for a moment.

Notice, next, how we start to recede. The sweetness “we” tasted expands to describe the whole scene — the music, the lake, the moon over it: “how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night.” We’re rising and entering pure nostalgia, which is where the sentence ends. It’s not with an image for the mind’s eye that E.B. White leaves us; it’s with something we experience closer to the heart: “what it had felt like to think about girls then.”

Isn’t that often how memory works? We see the experience again, and then we feel what it was like back then.

SxS: Get on Stage (Part Two)

In Part One of this post, urging an imaginative approach to taking “appreciative measure” of admired sentences, I presented the material with which Richard Yates composed the very opening of his novel Revolutionary Road. Here is how he arranged that material — and steered the imagination of his readers — in the first sentence: 

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.

Like so much of fiction, it’s an audio-visual experience. In this case, we start with the ear and end with the eye. Yates begins with the sound of the rehearsal receding, the last traces of voices nearly gone from the air, abandoning the Laurel Players. What are “dying sounds” at the start are nonexistent by the time we reach that past-tense “left,” and these players” play no longer; they are not actors but acted upon, stranded, without lines.

They are also stranded in the middle of the sentence, “with nothing to do.” At the center is an absence of purpose, and we’ve entered a soundless stretch in which we’re moved toward image (and an attempt to see ahead): that “blinking” in the glare of the footlights that shine on this script-less troupe. We follow their gaze; the camera pans back; we see and sense the vacancy of the auditorium.

Interesting that we begin with remnants of sound and end here, in silence, with a word (auditorium) that means a place where something is heard. We’re in a place made for sound that is soundless. Lights shine brightly on the end of something that hasn’t really even begun. The momentum here is from expectation — not of anything specifically promised or hinted at, but resulting from the desertion of what was, and the concomitant, wishful mystery of whether anything positive is ahead. A hopeful look into emptiness. If you know the novel, the sentence now likely strikes you (again) as brilliantly composed. 

How the second sentence works in conjunction with this opener to form the first paragraph of the novel deserves attention as well. But that’s a post for another day!

SxS: Get on Stage (Part One)

by ALLAN REEDER


I want to put together two points that Verlyn Klinkenborg makes in his recent book Several Short Sentences About Writing

We forget something fundamental as we read: every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t. 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.

+

Why is the sentence this way and not another way? That sounds like a trivial or unanswerable question until you imagine revising the sentence, giving it a different rhythm, substituting a different word, a different structure.

The first point prompts me to ask how we can most clearly see — and possibly hear — that “residue” of decisions. The second point answers: with imagination and a license to fiddle. But I’d suggest, as I do to my students, a different application of the imagination. Instead of imagining revising a sentence you admire — that is, after its “final shape” has been achieved, thereby distancing yourself from the actual making — why not fantasize that you were there in the moments (or days, or weeks) of creation, of getting to that satisfying verbal arrangement?

Let’s imagine we were beside Richard Yates, perhaps peering over his shoulder, maybe whispering into his ear, as he composed the opening sentence of Revolutionary Road. Let’s say that he had already gathered the words he intended to use to create the image and narrative moment he carried in his imagination for the start of the novel, but that he hadn’t yet arrived at the most effective and artful syntax. Here are the building blocks:

1. the Laurel Players

in

2. an empty auditorium

during

3. the final, dying sounds of their dress rehearsal

With these three phrases, we have three crucial elements: the People(characters), the Place (setting), and the Predicament (the narrative moment — the very end of perhaps the last rehearsal).

But that’s not all — Yates has some specifics in mind about these People. They …

[a] stand still (on the stage)

[b] blink out over the footlights

[c] are silent

[d] feel helpless

[e] have nothing to do (now, in this moment).

The challenge: what’s the clearest, most artfully engaging single sentence you can compose with these elements? Where do you begin the sentence — with the People, the Place, or the Predicament? Where do you move next? How do the elements interact? And how do you end?

Let Virginia Tufte, author of Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, comment here:

[I]t is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms, and emphasis, to carry meaning — of whatever kind — as well as glow individually in just the right place.

This, of course, is a closed-book endeavor. Enjoy! I’ll get Richard to deliver in my next post.

"It’s just like catching a fish in a creek."

I’ve gotten to the point where I seem to recognize a good sentence when I’ve written it on the typewriter. Often it’s surrounded by junk. So I’m extremely careful. If a good sentence occurs in an otherwise boring paragraph, I cut it out, rubber-cement it to a sheet of typewriter paper, and put it in a folder. It’s just like catching a fish in a creek. I pull out a sentence and slip a line through the gills and put it on a chain and am very careful not to mislay it. Sometimes I try that sentence in ten different places until finally it finds the place where it will stay—where the surrounding sentences attach themselves to it and it becomes part of them. In the end what I write is almost entirely made up of those sentences, which is why what I write now is so short. They come one by one, and sometimes in dubious company. Those sentences that are really valuable are mysterious—perhaps they come from another place, the way lyric poetry comes from another place. They come from some kind of unconscious foreknowledge of what you are going to do. Because when you find the place where a sentence finally belongs it is utterly final in a way you had no way of knowing: it depends on a thing you hadn’t written.

— William Maxwell, in The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 71 (1982)

"I think it’s important to open that area of inquiry as early as possible."

It is a pleasure to read Matt Bell’s answers in the new “The Books We Teach” series(-to-be) of interviews offered by Ploughshares — and to read the following in particular:

One of my favorite texts to teach is Gary Lutz’s essay “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” I couldn’t imagine not exposing students to this piece. After reading it, we spend a day considering sentence after sentence on the projector, all kinds of successful ways to get from the opening word to the final punctuation, how the sentences are built, where the power comes from, and what kind of rules we can extract about what creates emotional effect on the sentence level. It’s my experience that fiction writers—and not just beginning fiction writers—have a lousy vocabulary for talking about sentence-level acoustics and poetics, and while there’s more to learn than we could ever cover in a single lecture, I think it’s important to open that area of inquiry as early as possible.