“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know,” wrote Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. In our trawling of the literary waters, this is an aphorism all writers inevitably catch, not far out from the shore. Our boats turn then, along the currents of the truest, clearest sentences. They are plentiful, and snatching them from the pages is not difficult – what with the scores of famous quotes that pervade bookstores and t-shirts and Instagram feeds. The difficulty arises in reading them, because a true sentence, after all, must be truly read.
For a writer, what does truly reading entail? All writers, in varying capacities, are readers. In her 1989 essay, ‘Write Till You Drop’, Anne Dillard writes, “The writer studies literature, not the world. She lives in the world; she cannot miss it. […] She is careful of what she reads, for that is what she will write.” Writers study other writers, as Anne Dillard studied Hemingway, as Hemingway studied Turgenev. Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s adoration for the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is famous. In a recent book talk, author Shradha Ghale cited the mellifluous sentences by Virginia Woolf as a prominent influence. In her instructional treatise, ‘Reading Like a Writer’, Francine Prose writes, “Writers learned to write by reading lucid sentences.” And how did they read them?
“I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made”, Prose writes. For her, each sentence is a self-sustaining system, each word an integral cog – a system that, with any one cog removed, would fail. By breaking apart a true sentence, by turning each word over in the light, we learn its style, its diction, its bare meaning. We learn how the author crafts a true sentence; we learn why the sentence is true.
Sentences are tools I am most familiar with. The first handful of sentences I read in my life were from a book of nursery rhymes, and the rhythm of the words with their accompanying illustrations took such deep roots in my mind that from the time I learned I could string together words, I have wanted to write. It didn’t matter to me what I wrote, the act of forming sentences – many winding ones, riddled with errors, or some acute ones that earned much coveted praise – was exhilarating. Consuming sentences was just as exhilarating – I consumed constantly, insistently – but it wasn’t until a decade later that I formed true reading habits.
During high school, I was taught to read with a pencil at hand. We weren’t allowed into our literature and language class without a pencil. Everything we read, poetry, newspaper articles, essays, the classics, plays, was read with the essential pencil, hanging onto each word, marking even exceptionally used punctuation for later contemplation. At a time in our education when our reading lists were longer than they’d ever been, we were taught to slow down. One main reading we did over an entire year was a drama by Edward Albee, titled, ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. Each of us had a pirated edition, xeroxed by the school for eighteen students, bound by tough, black tape. At the end of two years, the thick, smooth plastic protecting the paper cover was torn in half, the tape fraying, the ragged book marked, cover to cover, to the inch of its margins, with notes and thoughts. Every sentence was annotated with a remark on style or word choice, the words, ‘irony’, ‘allusion’, ‘hyperbole’, ‘foreshadowing’, and their other stylistic relatives appearing like mantras in my fast-slanting adolescent cursive.
The psychosis of each character by Albee is an intricate scheme, plotted from the first page to the very last in the form of choice barbs that sting eccentric George and Martha and generic Nick and Honey. Every tightly strung turn of phrase exposes, in increments, their individual delusions, so that the final revelation, when it arrives, unstrings the play, leaving it quietly falling around our ears. In the six years that have passed since, the influence of this play has stayed with me, the flight of each dialogue and the land of each emotional turn, the incredible silence of defeat marking curtainfall, and the choice of words and style that created them. In the six years of reading the way I learned to read ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’, I haven’t piled as many books as I would have liked to my stack of reading, choosing instead to mine several favorite novels to the bone. But my pool of true sentences is becoming clear and expansive. When your pencil lingers over every word, you value their presence; you recognize that they aren’t superfluous, that they’ve been chosen to execute a specific purpose. The sentence acquires action, every full-stop becoming a destination where meaning arrives.
Take, for example, this excerpt from Gyanu Adhikari’s short story, ‘Action Has Been Taken’:
“Action must be taken, I told the recovering addict. He listened, silent, unmoving, the way airline passengers listen to safety announcements. Where’s action today? I asked the university students downstairs. If we don’t act, I warned the shopkeeper at the vegetable market, our lives will be miserable, and our children’s lives will be even worse. Infected by my enthusiasm, she forgot to charge me for the okra and looked past me. It was apparent that there was action happening behind me. I turned around. I was not wrong. It was the recovering addict.”
These sentences are short, bouncing from the recovering addict to the university students to the shopkeeper and back to the recovering addict. They mirror the movement of the narrator: running up to see the recovering addict and down to see the university students, bustling to the street to talk to the shopkeeper just outside the building. Cut short with full stops, with a single coordinating conjunction interrupting 93 words, the sentences rush ahead, reflecting the urgency and the enthusiasm of the narrator as they deliver their message of action. The repetition of the word ‘action’ in these sentences iterates the intense desire to act. Action becomes imperative with the word ‘must’, and pressing with the demand, ‘Where’s action today?’ This burning urgency is reinforced with the hysterical warning of, ‘our lives will be miserable, and our children’s lives will be even worse.’ It is apparent that all around our central character, bursting with verbs and energy, is stillness. Our narrator is the single force, whirling like a strong wind, among the recovering addict, who is ‘silent, unmoving’, as unaffected as passengers listening to routine announcements, the silent university students, and the absent-minded shopkeeper. Finally, at the end of the paragraph, something has blown over. The recovering addict, obviously far more infected by the narrator’s enthusiasm than the unspeaking and distracted shopkeeper, has taken action.
Every sentence in this paragraph is economical. In nearly a hundred words, the author hasn’t placed a single word that could be removed without altering, however slightly, the mood of this paragraph and its place in the story. The story marches ahead with clipped sentences, until it becomes apparent to the reader that action begets action.
To Hemingway, writing is to take action. Writing is essentially to put down one true, sharp sentence. Then put down another, and another. Writers learn how to do this by reading as though they were detectives: inquisitively, obsessively, dragging each sentence into the light, examining each word until the mysteries of style and meaning are resolved. The trick to reading and writing lies, then, in respecting every sentence.
In ‘Write Till You Drop’, Dillard recounts this anecdote:
“A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ”Do you think I could be a writer?”
”Well,” the writer said, ”I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter.
He said, ”I liked the smell of the paint.”
Read ‘Action Has Been Taken’ by Gyanu Adhikari here.
Shefali is a reader, a poet, and a team member at Quixote’s Cove, currently an ardent fan of magical realism.