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

"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

A View from the Inside

Well, I’ve never liked the term “close reading.” I’d like to know who thought it up.... I think of close readers as people who want to read from the point of view of someone who composes with words. It’s a view from the inside, not from the outside. The phrase “close reading” sounds as if you’re looking at the text with a microscope from outside, but I would rather think of a close reader as someone who goes inside a room and describes the architecture. You speak from inside the poem as someone looking to see how the roof articulates with the walls and how the wall articulates with the floor. And where are the crossbeams that hold it up, and where are the windows that let light through?

—Helen Vendler, The Paris Review

“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