Recommended Reading: Bret Anthony Johnston on (not) writing what you know. His essay is an excerpt of Writer’s Notebook II, published by the folks at Tin House. (Related: we published Harper’s editor Christopher Beha’s essay in the book last year.)
When I started writing seriously — by which I mean that I was serious in my intentions and commitment, which seem to me the main things a writer can control — I started by writing sentences. I spent a lot of time, sometimes a day, sometimes the better part of a week, on each one, moving its parts around, weighing the thing in my hand, struggling to achieve balance and shapeliness, waiting for all the pieces to click perfectly into place.
Paul Valéry once told André Breton that he couldn’t be a novelist because he refused to write, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Fiction writing, Breton and Valéry agreed, relies too much on sentences written in this “purely informative style,” sentences of a “circumstantial, needlessly specific nature” — why five o’clock? why not five thirty? and why not a princess? In those early days of writing, I thought often of Valéry’s remark. I wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t want to write that kind of bluntly functional sentence. I wanted each sentence to be a thing unto itself, self-sufficient and entire. Needless to say, these sentences were all a long way from “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.”
Each sentence necessarily represented an end point, since it’s precisely the nature of self-sufficient things that they don’t have needs that must be met beyond their own borders. They don’t make demands that bring new things into existence. So I always felt, after finishing one, that I was starting from scratch. Naturally, I’d write another sentence, but it wouldn’t bear any relationship to the one I’d just completed. Again, necessarily so: self-sufficient things don’t have relationships.
This was in college, when I was taking writing workshops. What would happen is that I would go on in this way awhile, until I had perhaps a dozen such sentences. It would then occur to me that I had to turn them into a piece that I could submit to class, so I’d lay my sentences out and write a bunch more to connect them into something that could reasonably be called a story. These connective sentences were written much more quickly, with far less care.
If this doesn’t sound like a very good way to go about writing stories, it isn’t. And the stories I wrote in this way weren’t very good. This was as obvious to me as it was to anyone who was forced to read them. But things weren’t completely hopeless: my professors and classmates sometimes picked out isolated sentences that they believed contained enough life and interest to suggest some promise on my part. You may have already guessed that the sentences they picked were never — I’m not exaggerating: not once — those I’d labored over.
There was obviously a lesson to be had here, but I wasn’t sure what it was. For a while, I thought it had to do with spontaneity. The sentences I’d spent all my time on felt mannered, uptight. The sentences I’d written quickly had a breezy vitality. I tried to write entirely in this breezy way, but I couldn’t do it without already having those more carefully constructed sentences — the “real” sentences — to link up. And I couldn’t trick myself into writing my “real” sentences like throwaways, though I experimented with various approaches to get over this barrier. On the advice of one teacher, I tried “free” writing — first thought, best thought. On the advice of another, I attempted self-hypnosis. On my own initiative, I drank before sitting down to work. In all cases the results were a mess.
Eventually, I just went back to laboring. I decided I had to work harder, but that part of my work would be making the writing feel less worked over. I thought of it as the literary equivalent of stonewashing jeans or building with distressed wood — creating pleasing imperfections by first polishing and then artfully tarnishing. I built an entire novel this way. It took me a long time to do it, and the novel wasn’t any good.
This might have gone on much longer than it did except that, while working on that novel, I began writing nonfiction. Mostly I wrote book reviews, but also some essays and long-form journalism. After I’d finished the novel that wasn’t very good, I wrote a memoir. Among other things, this memoir was about the illness and death of a person I loved. When writing all this nonfiction, I labored over my sentences, but it was a different kind of labor. If you write about actual people and you are a halfway responsible human being, the mandate to account accurately for your subject is going to take precedence over everything else. So I spent a lot of time on my sentences, but I did so with a greater end in mind, which was making sure that those sentences captured the truth as I understood it. The results were better than anything I’d written before, and better than the fiction I was writing at the same time.
Once again there was a lesson to be had, and once again I didn’t know what it was. If the lesson was that I wrote better when I felt an obligation to the truth, I wasn’t sure how to apply it to my fiction writing, which was the writing that mattered most to me. More than one person suggested that the lesson was that I simply wasn’t a very good fiction writer, that I should be grateful that I could write nonfiction that people would pay to read, which put me ahead of most aspiring writers, and that I should stop driving myself crazy doing something for which I had no demonstrable talent. That wasn’t a lesson I was willing to accept. I was going to write fiction no matter what, so I might as well try to figure out how to do it properly. In fact, even knowing that the novel I’d spent six years on wasn’t any good, as I finished my memoir, I was mapping out a new novel in my head.
When you map a book out in your head, you don’t build it with sentences, since you can’t fit that many sentences in your head at once. You build it with images or scenes. Or you lay out the structure, or you outline the plot. I do some combination of all these things. In any case, the very day I sent my publisher the final changes to my memoir, I started writing what would become my first published novel. By then, the book already existed in some inchoate form in my head, and my job was to get it onto the page. There wasn’t the same kind of moral imperative that comes with nonfiction: I’d made everything up, so I didn’t owe it to anyone other than myself to render it truthfully, and I made changes to the initial conception whenever they seemed justified, many of them quite substantial. But I had finally learned the lesson, and it applied to my fiction as well as my nonfiction: Whenever my sentences had a function outside themselves — whether that function was connecting up other sentences, honoring the truth of a loved one’s life, or setting down an imagined world already existent in my head — they could in time be made to work. Whenever my sentences were built to be beautiful yet self-sufficient objects of attention, they collapsed.
It’s long been my experience that after I learn a valuable lesson through a lengthy and costly period of trial and error, I will quickly find that lesson stated in the most explicit terms in all sorts of places where I might easily have found it before. So I should not have been surprised, while I was working on the second novel, to come across the following passage in one of my favorite books:
These things I then knew not, and I loved these lower beauties, and I was sinking to the very depths, and to my friends I said, “Do we love any thing but the beautiful? What then is the beautiful? and what is beauty? What is it that attracts and wins us to the things we love? for unless there were in them a grace and beauty, they could by no means draw us unto them.” And I marked and perceived that in bodies themselves, there was a beauty, from their forming a sort of whole, and again, another from apt and mutual correspondence, as of a part of the body with its whole, or a shoe with a foot, and the like. And this consideration sprang up in my mind, out of my inmost heart, and I wrote “on the fair and fit,” I think, two or three books.
This comes from Augustine’s Confessions. It’s a minor passage — the actual volumes Augustine wrote “on the fair and fit” have been lost — but I couldn’t believe I’d taken so little notice of it in the half dozen previous times I’d read the book. Augustine is describing precisely the distinction I’d been failing to make all that time: there is a beauty to be found in a well-made whole, a body itself; then there is the beauty of a part in the whole, which is the beauty of a thing that elegantly serves its purpose. When it comes to writing stories or novels, sentences are parts, not wholes. They need to be both fair and fit. They can’t be treated as bodies themselves.
Finally, it’s not a limitation but a virtue of the novel that it demands its author to write, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Within the context of the novel, such a sentence can even be beautiful, because it can be made necessary. This is the truth that another poet, W.H. Auden, gets at when he says that the novelist
Must struggle out of his boyish gift and learn
How to be plain and awkward, how to be
One after whom none think it worth to turn
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
Another bit of advice I’d read half a dozen times and didn’t understand until I’d learned it in my own way.
People can disagree, and have, over whether a novel or a story must itself have a “purpose” apart from being beautiful. But it seems to me inarguable that the parts of a novel or a story must have a purpose within the whole. These days, when I find that a sentence I’m writing isn’t working, I don’t think about what I want that sentence to look like or to be; I don’t pull it from the page to weigh it in my hand; I don’t worry over its internal balance. I simply ask myself, “What do I need this sentence to do?” I ask myself what role the sentence plays in its paragraph, what role the paragraph plays in its scene, the scene in its story. If I can’t answer these questions, even in some inarticulate and intuitive way, then I’ve got a problem, and that problem is bigger than this one sentence.
If this bit of hard-won knowledge sounds fairly obvious, I can only say in my defense that nothing about the academic creative writing complex as I experienced it encourages this attitude. The problem goes as deep as the very name of the discipline. I suspect that the perpetual debate about whether “creative writing” can be taught would cease if we just had a moratorium on that unfortunate moniker. No good teacher thinks that creativity can be taught; no good teacher doubts that writing — in the sense of a set of tools with which a writer can tackle literary problems — can be taught. Yet how often are beginning writing students who are not yet up to putting together an entire story placed in front of an object and asked to describe it in writing, in the way that students of painting and drawing are asked to render still lifes or the human form? Instead, they are simply told to write something that is in turn given to other students who are asked to judge it without any reference to what the piece of writing is supposed to be doing, what part it might play in a larger whole. The result, I suspect, is lots of students doing as I did, tirelessly perfecting sentences that serve no purpose, forever chasing the fair without ever considering the fit.
My own experience as a teacher has been that students are initially resistant to writing exercises, which they see as an infringement upon their self-expression. They are likely to be impatient if you suggest that these exercises will actually give them the tools necessary for self-expression, let alone that great writing might not even have that much to do with self-expression, in the end. But if you push them on it, if you set them to specific tasks, they will see improvement almost immediately and thus be encouraged to persist. I have had students admit to a great feeling of relief at being given an assignment at which they could succeed because even though they were certain that they wanted to write, they didn’t yet know what they wanted to write, and learning both the how and the what of writing at once is an overwhelming task.
There is another way that creative writing workshops at almost every level contradict the functional view I’m proposing. In most creative writing workshops, you will be encouraged to write short stories, even if your ambition is simply to write novels. (Once you’ve “graduated” from workshops, of course, you will be encouraged to write novels, even if your ambition is simply to write short stories, but this is another matter.) The idea is that stories are easier in some way, if not to write, then to discuss in class. But if it’s true that sentences and paragraphs need to be judged as parts of a whole, then it follows that the sentences and paragraphs of a short story — which is quite obviously a dramatically different form from the novel — need to be judged on different terms than the sentences and paragraphs of a novel. Treating short story writing as preparation for novel writing suggests that a good sentence is a good sentence, irrespective of its fitness to a particular task.
Here is what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that writing ought to be transparent, that language that draws attention to itself is an extravagance. I’m certainly not saying that a novelist must have a “purely informative style.” Nor am I saying that style should be of only secondary concern. In fact, I still more or less think that style is everything. But style, as Proust said, is just a way of looking at the world. It emerges from the effort to express something other than itself. You don’t develop a style by writing sentences that have no purpose other than to be stylish, sentences that seek to be self-contained works of art.
Admittedly, some truly great novelists, like Joyce and Flaubert and Nabokov, went a long way with the belief that every sentence should be a work of art. To this observation I have two responses. First, if you have the talent of Joyce or Flaubert or Nabokov, you should immediately cease listening to anything I have to say about writing. But second, if we’re being honest, even Joyce and Flaubert and Nabokov were in their ways harmed by this belief, achieved what they did more in spite of than because of it, and did their worst work when they were most committed to that aim.
Finally, the advice to make your sentences do something doesn’t rest on a particular attitude about the function of literature. It applies equally to traditionalists and experimentalists, to realists and to metafictionists. In a way, it doesn’t matter what you ask your sentences to do, as long as you ask them to do something. But my own experience has taught me that sentences have the best chance to fit their purpose elegantly when the work they’re being asked to do is fairly modest. One of the biggest surprises of my writing life so far has been the questions that occupy my thoughts when I’m writing. When reading great literature — the kind that made me want to write in the first place — I ask questions like “What is my attitude toward death?” or “How can meaning persist in the absence of God?” Because I want readers of my own work to be provoked into asking similar questions, I had long assumed that writing would involve my spending a lot of time on them. But when I write I am occupied by narrow questions specific to the work at hand, like “How do I get from this scene to that scene?” or “How do I make this character’s frustrations clear?”
If I’m lucky, my answers to these questions will implicitly suggest a relationship to all the persistent questions that I want my writing “really” to be about. I think this is what Annie Dillard means when she says that a writer must aim for the chopping block and not for the wood. But in the meantime, one advantage to the more modest questions is that they have answers. Those answers may not always be easy to find, but I long ago moved past the idea that the solution to my problems is to work less hard. At the very least, finding the perfect answer to a simple question seems feasible enough to get me started, to get me doing something.
“Sentences” by Christopher R. Beha will appear in The Writers Notebook II, which Tin House Books will publish in November.
Image Credit: Flickr/tjshirey