Friday, August 27, 2010

One True Sentence

Whatever one may think of Hemingway's writing, his attitude as a writer is exemplary. Here is part of a famous passage from A Moveable Feast about his "work":

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.' So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scroll-work or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written. (16-17)

Hemningway would, of course, become famous for precisely the "true simple declarative sentence"; in fact, he won the Nobel Prize for building a style out of it. We might say that Hemingway cultivated the "propositional attitude" I talked about in my last post. He believed that life was rooted in things that were true or false, that even his fictions were ultimately about something he knew:

Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about. I was trying to do this all the time I was writing, and it was good and severe discipline. (17)

In theory, then, there is in each of Hemingway's stories a simple, declarative sentence that tells us directly what the story is "about", i.e., a sentence that Hemingway thinks is true and which is the core of the narrative. Perhaps some of his stories actually leave that sentence out, but it would then, in principle, be possible to construct it. Understanding the story would amount to understanding that sentence.

Again, we can think what we want about that sort of writing as literature. You may like your fiction more ambiguous; you may prefer a "well-managed darkness" over a "A Clean Well-lighted Place". But even a judicious obscurity (if it is really to be judicious, well-managed) must be constructed with an awareness of what it is you are trying to conceal. Certainly, academic writers do well to organize their writing around the truest sentences that they know. As Hemingway points out, this is good discipline, but it also makes the day's writing go much more smoothly. Once you have articulated simply and straightforwardly the thing you know, the thing you are writing about, it becomes easier to write.

"Do not worry," you can hear Papa saying. "You have always written before and you will write now."

That "now" is important. The act of declaring what you know, right now, in your writing room, without any further inquiry, without first reading some more, or going back into the field to question your informants, clarifies your position as a writer. What you know now is what you can write now. And you discover it in those simple sentences that you know to be true.

Next week I'm going to look at sentences in greater detail. The week after that, I'll look at the paragraph, a no less important subject. If you want some homework, you can read the first chapter of Christopher Lasch's Plain Style.

1 comment:

Tommy K Lassen said...

Tak Thomas, meget inspirerende.