Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sentence by Sentence, Another Way to Write


I stumbled over a random, breathless paragraph in the pages of the July 27 issue of the New Yorker. It was a trap.

the draft copy2Writers tumble into this story, and then they plummet. I have always supposed this to be because Gould suffered from hypergraphia. He could not stop writing. This is an illness, a mania, but seems more like something a writer might envy, which feels even rottener than it usually does, because Gould was a toothless madman who slept in the street. You are envying a bum….

The author, Jill Lepore, isn’t done with her paragraph yet, and she’s not done with “you,” the hapless writer. It seems that what Gould wrote was dreadful.

But wait, that’s worse, because then you have to ask: Maybe everything you write is dreadful too. But then, in one last twist, you find out that everything he wrote never even existed….

Since Lepore is one of my favorite essayists, and rarely breathless, I had to backtrack and read her article, “Joe Gould’s Teeth.” It has a grisly fascination. Gould was an awful little man, racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, a eugenecist, a stalker, interesting mainly for his misery, for what other people wrote about him, and for the supporters of his endless (maybe) hand-written work called “Oral History.” Among them were e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and William Saroyan.

What stayed with me was that original paragraph, Lepore’s evocation of the desperate writer. Every writer will tell you how hard it is to write a book (James Patterson possibly excepted). Since no one who hasn’t done it believes us, we ought to stop whining.

Nevertheless, writers keep writing how-to-write books. Presumably the market is those who hope to become writers themselves. I suspect a bigger market is those of us who have been writing for years.

bird-by-birdWhat we are looking for, I think, is reassurance. Maybe a reminder or two, or even some hints. The best of these books agree on most points: how hard it is to write, of course; the insistence on essential truth; the need for some understanding of grammar and syntax; the value of reading aloud; the necessity of rewriting (and, in my case, rewriting and rewriting); patience.

The most common advice is “throw up, then clean up.” For years I thought this phrase was Anne Lamott’s, from her bravura memoir-cum-manual, Bird by Bird, but she’s more direct. She calls it “shitty first drafts.” “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out…. If one of the characters wants to say, ‘Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?,’ you let her. No one is going to see it.”

Lamott means to convey that all first drafts are shitty. If you can’t accept that, you’ll never really write. (Surely there are exceptions, you say. Yeah, and every year somebody, somewhere, wins Mega Millions, at odds of 258 million to 1.) Her advice is excellent. It can’t be argued against. But her emphasis is on a certain kind of playful sloppiness that’s only one of many ways to make a first draft shitty.

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s writing advice is generally similar, but in Several Short Sentences About Writing, his emphasis is quite different:

Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.

Know what each sentence says,

What it doesn’t say,

And what it implies.

Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.

In these sentences Klinkenborg is actually saying that shittiness resides not only in the first draft as a whole but in almost all of its first-attempt sentences.

(Yes, he lays out his entire book this way, every new sentence flush left. Annoying, but eventually you get used to it, and it makes a point. “Point” being a concept he hates, by the way, along with meaning, logic, transitions, and all the rules about writing he supposes you learned in school.)

Why are we talking about sentences…?

The answer is simple.

Your job as a writer is making sentences.

Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed.

The rest will need to be fixed.

short sentencesHe tells you exactly how to do it, from the general (“Start by learning to recognize what interests you…. Notice what you notice and let it go”) to the particular (a list of words and phrases to avoid: In fact./ Indeed./ On the one hand./ On the other hand./ Therefore./ Moreover./ However./ In one respect./ Of course./ Whereas./ Thus).

One reason I like Klinkenborg is because I write his way, or try to, one sentence at a time — a great excuse for being a slow writer. Anne Lamott’s criteria are just as strict, but her way of writing a first draft, slinging Mr. Poopy Pants around, would be a lot more fun. If I could do it.

You can have a whole manuscript full of good sentences and still have a shitty first draft, because of plot problems, cliché characters, whatever. Worst of all is lack of a true story. Not factually true, but honest.

In her book The Wave of the Mind, Ursula Le Guin shares a vision of how to write that’s certainly no easier than Lamott’s or Klinkenborg’s approaches but somehow filled with hope. More next time.



Klinkenborg, Verlyn. 2012. Several Short Sentences About Writing. New York: Knopf.

Lamott, Anne. 1994. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2004. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Boston: Shambhala.

Lepore, Jill. 2015. “Joe Gould’s Teeth: The Long-lost Story of the Longest Book Ever Written.” New Yorker (27 July). (may need a subscription)

Leave a Reply