On Sentences, Part I: Jhumpa Lahiri
The New York Times published several pieces on Reading and Writing in the Sunday Review section on March 18, 2012. At the time I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s eloquent essay called “My Life’s Sentences,” which I planned to reread sometime. I kept the whole section, intending to read the other pieces, “when I had time.” Of course I forgot about it all, until recently when I was reading Francine Prose’s (how did she get a last name like that?) book called Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who want to Write Them. That sounded like me. Prose’s Guide is a very interesting and valuable book, with chapters on subjects like “Close Reading,” “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” “Character,” “Dialogue…” I’ll report on that book down the road; I’m only as far as “Paragraphs.” But reading Prose’s chapter on “Sentences” made Lahiri’s piece pop back into my head, so I did reread it, and I’m so glad I did. It’s wonderful! http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/my-lifes-sentences/
Of course you can read the whole thing for yourself, when you have time (!), along with the other pieces in the Review section which I still have yet to read. But in the meantime, I’ll give you some quotes from it to whet your appetite for the whole essay, which I promise is worth your while.
Lahiri, author of Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies and one of the best writers writing today, begins by describing how in college she’d underline sentences that struck her, “that made me look up from the page…”:
“I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”
She cites a sentence from Joyce’s “Araby,” which appears towards the beginning of the short story:
“’The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.’ I have never forgotten it. This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.”
It’s fascinating to me to hear her response to this sentence and her explication of what makes it special to her. It’s worth reading her words about it again. Prose’s book is making me more conscious of the kind of close reading Lahiri is talking about. It’s so easy, given our sped-up attention spans, to skim over things, especially words. But to slow down and pay real attention, to savor as both Lahiri and Prose do in the examples they give, is to increase our pleasure in reading and maybe our skills as writers.
Reading this Joyce sentence, I thought of something I try to do myself, which is make sentences do more than one thing. I notice in sentences I read how much a single sentence can accomplish, and not just in terms of providing information. As Lahiri demonstrates above, a sentence can do many things all at once. When people sense that their writing is thin or one-dimensional, it may be because their sentences are only doing one thing. Or maybe not the right things. I’ll try to give some examples of sentences doing more than one thing in a later post.
Lahiri describes her own writing process:
“The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life. It is a habit of antiphony: of call and response. Most days begin with sentences that are typed into a journal no one has ever seen. There is a freedom to this; freedom to write what I will not proceed to wrestle with. The entries are mostly quotidian, a warming up of the fingers and brain. On days when I’m troubled, when I am grieved, when I am at a loss for words, the mechanics of formulating sentences, and of stockpiling them in a vault, is the only thing that centers me again…
“My work accrues sentence by sentence. After an initial phase of sitting patiently, not so patiently, struggling to locate them, to pin them down, they begin arriving, fully formed in my brain. I tend to hear them as I am drifting off to sleep. They are spoken to me, I’m not sure by whom. By myself, I know, though the source feels independent, recondite, especially at the start. The light will be turned on, a sentence of two will be hastily scribbled on a scrap of paper, carried upstairs to the manuscript in the morning. I hear sentences as I’m staring out the window, or chopping vegetables, or waiting on a subway platform alone. They are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, handed to me in no particular order with no discernible logic. I only sense that they are part of the thing.”
This is so fascinating! I love how she hears the sentence “spoken” by what feels like an independent source, as if she’s simply channeling them. And perhaps she is, from her subconscious or unconscious, since anyone who has ever written knows you can’t get very far on just your conscious mind alone. And fascinating too, that the sentences are not in any order or with any logic when they come to her. But it must be that they have information, and I don’t mean just facts, that inform her about the story, about the tone or voice or characters or some essential but elusive something that is trying to come into being.
“Over time, virtually each sentence I receive and record in this haphazard manner will be sorted, picked over, organized, changed. Most will be dispensed with. All the revision I do—and this process begins immediately, accompanying the gestation—occurs on a sentence level. It is by fussing with sentences that a character become clear to me, that a plot unfolds. To work on them so compulsively, perhaps prematurely, is to see the trees before the forest. And yet I am incapable of conceiving the forest any other way.”
So for Lahiri it all comes down to the sentence. I find that hopeful; it makes writing seem more manageable somehow. Just take it sentence by sentence. She tells us “Sentences are the bricks as well as the mortar, the motor as well as the fuel. They are the cells, the individual stitches. Their nature is at once solitary and social. Sentences establish tone, and set the pace. One in front of the other marks the way.”
Next time I want to tell you some of what Francine Prose has to say about sentences. And FYI, this article by Jhumpa Lahiri is the first article in Draft, a new series about the art and craft of writing at nytimes.com/opinionator. I plan to look into it—when I have time…