Word, Sentence, Paragraph, Tome

Most writers have a collection of books and essays about writing. Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” a writer on writing, is my favorite essay of all time. George Orwell’s brief essay on writing is also a delight (“Good prose is like a window pane”). His longer “Politics and the English Language” is genius, pure and simple. But there is a narrower category of writing on writing. Some writers write not about inspiration or the significance of words or the philosophy behind them, but rather about nuts and bolts; about “craft.” That’s a sort I can’t resist.

Most interesting in these books about writing process is how completely and utterly different two or four or a dozen different writers can be when discussing the same specific aspect of writing. I mentioned to my dad that, in his On Writing, Stephen King discourages plotting a story. King writes that all the stories he really enjoys proceeded not from careful plotting but instead from a situation or image that he wanted to explore. Person A ends up in this strange place with this strange coincidence or supernatural event or tragic circumstance. What happens next? Or what happened to get him there? King writes of plots:

“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”

I told my dad that this idea helped me understand a lot of what I was reading in some of my favorite novels. How does Nathan Glass, in Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies, end up in a car with his niece hearing her harrowing tale of harassment and assault at the hands of a cult leader in North Carolina? How does Charlie Citrine, in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, end up in a bathroom stall, holding a pistol for the two-bit mobster who’s trying to shake him down while that two-bit mobster relieves his bowels? Stephen King provided the answer: that’s where the story took them. My dad agreed and then, like a good English teacher, countered. John Grisham once visited his class and told the students that his favorite novels were those for which he had forty, fifty, hundred-page outlines written before he’d started word one of the novels themselves. On the exact same point, two immensely successful and (in the eyes of many critics) somewhat similar writers contradicted each other in the most fundamental way. Such enormous contradictions are impossible to avoid.

One of my favorite books on writing is Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. She writes in a lengthy section on the sounds of words and the different categories of letters and how to use them:

“‘No ideas but in things’ said William Carlos Williams. And, for our purposes here, no things but in the sounds of the words representing them. A ‘rock’ is not a ‘stone.’”

She’s a poet. It makes sense for a poet, writing of poetry, to emphasize the sounds of words and the importance of choosing individual words carefully.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes something different in Several short sentences about writing:

“Why are we talking about sentences? Why not talk about the work as a whole, about shape, form, genre, the book, the feature story, the profile, even the paragraph? The answer is simple. Your job as a writer is making sentences.”

(Note that the entirety of his book is composed with each sentence starting on a new line; I’ve condensed them here.) The (in)famous Strunk and White note, in Rule #13 of composition, that a writer should “make the paragraph the unit of composition.” For what it’s worth, Stephen King speaks well of the paragraph, but also says that the job of a writer is to tell a story, to unearth a fossil with whatever tools necessary, hammer or fine brush or backhoe:

“Still, I believe the first draft of a book – even a long one – should take no more than three months, the length of a season. Any longer and – for me, at least – the story begins to take on an odd foreign feel, like a dispatch from the Romanian Department of Public Affairs, or something broadcast on high-band shortwave during a period of severe sunspot activity.”

A snob might dismiss King. He’s famous for writing fast and critics turn up their noses. But he’s a story-teller and fancies himself a story-teller. For him, the sentences, grammar, paragraph, letters in the words, and words themselves are all important. But it all takes a back seat to the story, the totality of the work, the short, the novella, the novel, the epic. Of course, each of these different perspectives deserves equal weight. Each word is important. The ways in which they form sentences are important. The composition of the paragraphs can completely change the way a page reads. None of it matters when the story is flat.

My C.V. would need to be a lot longer before I disagreed with any of them and, for what it’s worth, I try to think about them all when I write. I never think enough about the placement and implication of each letter in each synonym for the same word but I think about it some. A “Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms” sits on my desk, alongside an atlas, a style manual, a grammar handbook, and notebooks filled with passages from books and stories I’ve read. It’s an interesting tool: like a thesaurus but, instead of a massive list of alternatives for a single word, it lists only four or five along with definitions that distinguish one from the other. Curve, bend, turn, and twist are interchangeable in some circumstances but have slightly different implications that should inform which one I choose.

I think constantly about sentences and Klinkenborg’s is probably the philosophy with which I identify most closely. I’m writing this essay in a series of single sentences, striking the return key at the conclusion of each. Paragraphs also stay in the front of my mind. When I edit this piece, I will sort the sentences into paragraphs as I go, make another pass through and separate them out again. I’ll pass through again and again, sorting and resorting, until I’ve stripped out as much useless type as I can. Over the course of that editing, the sentences fall into numerous arrangements of paragraphs, rarely with the same breaks twice. But among those different orientations or perspectives or philosophies, Stephen King’s stands out.

Writers love to say that every word matters. They love to sweat over every sentence. They relish the agony of moving sentences and plucking out letters and commas. They even love to say that the story is most important. What writers will never say is that you should turn the tap on and let all of it just spill out. No writer but Stephen King would admit to finishing the first draft of a novel in a single week. No writer but Stephen King would admit that he thinks the first draft of a novel should take no more than three months. All four frames-of-mind are equally important, but King’s was somewhat special to read because it didn’t feel like a restriction or a suggestion or a rule or a guideline. (Even though, in the literal sense, it was all of those things.)

I’m a fast writer. When I hit the sweet spot, words trip over their laces and step on each other trying to get out. Several times last week, I wrote upwards of 4,000 words before leaving for work at 2:00 and still had time for lunch and some hand-weights before morning coffee. I’ll lop off half or more of a first draft, but still. That’s objectively fast. But, after the twinge of pride I feel looking at the word count, shame settles in. I should be beating my head against the wall to get the words out. If it was that easy then it must be shit.

None of that is to say that the massive floods of words are good or remotely final. I’ll come back to that flood of words and strain it for every bit of gold, check what I collect and sort out the pyrite. I’ll leave the computer in frustration. I’ll put something down to go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll barely chisel out a single page before losing my train of thought. It’s just to say that, in general, I write quickly and that writers often imply that there’s something dirty about that. Oliver, Klinkenborg, and Mssrs. Strunk and White all wrote enormously helpful and important books. They’re each essential. But King struck me in a different place. In the context of what writers say about their work and the suffering and slaving and bleeding over notebooks that producing it requires, King’s way feels like permission.