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…
I loved that piece, and saved it to reread (which I will, thank you for reminding me of it). One gets the sense from Lahiri (magnified when you see her speak) that her writing process is intensely focused and careful yet redolent with beauty and meaning. Fascinating.
It's almost beyond words to say what the sentence means to a writer. I recognize entirely Lahiri's idea that character and story emerge as sentences come into being. Perhaps that intense attachment to the sentence, or not, divides writers into camps. I am thinking of two times when I've been brought up short by what seemed like an accusation–that one of my novels had no plot, that one of my essays had no thesis.
The second first. I had written a course paper years ago in grad school in an independent studies course from a Ph.D student. I made a tour through Latin American history and many wonderful Latin American novels. It was all an exploration for me, building different ideas and themes together, sentence by sentence, until I reached the concluding one: Despite their ongoing political and economic problems, these countries share a strength that comes from many sources: the secret codes of ancestral wisdom, the lushness of the tropical world, the pulse of the sea, the high cold of the mountains, and, most of all, the ongoing rhythms of a highly diverse world, surviving and reshaping itself in anew in community.
No thesis? I'd reached a conclusion, finding my way, sentence by sentence, until I had reached a sense of what the history and literature revealed. True, I hadn't stated in the first paragraph what I was setting out to prove. I had not followed the basic plan my daughter was given in high school (Lucille's Method?) of thesis, development, restatement of thesis. I am laughing writing that. That is the opposite of working from the sentence and the discoveries it brings.
This was the indictment of the book: "It has no plot. There is no struggle between good and evil, no climax, no anti-climax, and no denouement." Ah, Aristotle. Ah, Cinderella story. We have so many wonderful novels and plays and movies written to that template. But if that were the only way to tell a story, so many things would be missing. Would we have Proust or most of Faulkner? Borges? We would have Love in the Time of Cholera, but no 100 Years of Solitude. We would be missing so many ways of telling stories that unfold and illuminate over time. Stories would be gone that have not started with a clear infrastructure but have arisen, sentence by sentence, with a writer looking inward and trying to make out the figures in the dark.
I'd love to see her read! And I love the way you describe her writing process. "Redolent with beauty and meaning" nails it! Thanks for your comment.