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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On Returning Home

It is a pleasure to move Sentence x Sentence into its new home here within Hillside Writing. Although Hillside has just launched, the vision of it has been around for several years. And so pulling up the Sentence x Sentence posts and moving them from their original ground on Tumblr can feel more like a homecoming than a replanting. 

And this has me recalling some of the most useful and sustaining words I know about returning home and the practice of writing. In the preface to his collected stories, All the Days and Nights, William Maxwell writes: 

... I had no idea that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-than-life-size characters — affectionate aunts, friends of the family, neighbors white and black — that I was presented with when I came into the world. The look of things. The weather. Men and women long at rest in the cemetery but vividly remembered. The Natural History of home: the suede glove on the front-hall table, the unfinished game of solitaire, the oriole's nest suspended from the tip of the outermost branch of the elm tree, dandelions in the grass. All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story or sustain the complicated cross-weaving of longer fiction. 

Good guidance for a writer of any age, whatever the genre or project. That there is an enduring imaginative promise in details from home — details that are always "waiting" there — is particularly instructive and encouraging for young writers, I've found. Willa Cather put it more succinctly: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” As a teacher and a writing coach, I find the practice of helping another to discover and sort through what's concretely there and compelling in the memory of home to be an especially satisfying pursuit. 



“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

"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)