The art of writing sentences commands highest respect. It’s complicated. It requires attention to word choice, grammar, metaphor, and clarity. This week I’m proofing my novel manuscript (now in the queue for e-book formatting) and, sadly, I’m finding sentences I wish I hadn’t written. Improving them takes my deepest care and running my brain on all cylinders.
The quest to write original, structurally interesting sentences puts me in mind of the elegant writer Harriet Doerr, author of Stones for Ibarra and Consider This, Señora. Her prose flows like the smoothest river, and yet I read that she too was challenged by sentence construction. In one interview, she called the endeavor of writing good sentences “hopeless.” And this from the woman who was an excellent wordsmith, who opened Ibarra with the lovely, “Here they are, two North Americans, a man and a woman just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau.”
Her work shows no chisel marks, and yet we know she was a sculptor of words who sometimes had to labor hard over the stone.
A friend and writing colleague of mine put it this way, as we sat with his draft manuscript searching for a way to improve a sentence that wouldn’t cooperate. “I know how I want it to read,” he said. “I just wish I were smarter so I could make it happen.”
His words come back to me again and again, as I find sentences in my novel that I’m amazed I wrote. I hardly recognize them. They seem to have come out a place in me that wasn’t fully conscious. How else would I allow something so boring as “Loneliness cut me like a knife” to find its way into my book? Or “Pool balls clicked at the table before the juke box came to life with a tune he didn’t know.” I only need to let my hand fall randomly on any page to find such gems.
It’s a never-ending challenge, this labor in service of the good sentence. The only way I know to get better at it, like anything we wish to master, is to practice every day.