"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

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

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



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)