The Life of a Sentence

RWW Faculty Suzanne Berne

A famous novelist I know once said of another novelist: “He cares too much about his sentences. I mean, not all of them matter.” I found his remark puzzling. Why shouldn’t all sentences matter? This question revives, in slightly different form, every time undergraduates in my writing workshops promise to “fuss” with their sentences after they’ve figured out their ideas. Then last spring, I spent an hour with a student who was struggling with sentence structure in his short story; frustrated, he finally burst out: “I don’t care about sentences. I just want to write.”

A cri de coeur that has at last provoked me to utter one myself: Sentences are matter! They are cellular! Writing lives or dies depending on their energy. No story is worth reading if its sentences are lazy, dull, or clumsy—even one bad sentence weakens the rest. Sentences embody ideas, not the other way around.

Thinking of sentences as cells makes sense to me not just because well-written stories come alive each time they are read, but, also, because encoded in every vivid sentence is a snippet of narrative DNA. Take this sentence from the opening of Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”:

She was very old and small, and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock.

The sentence’s vitality, of course, springs from the comparison between an old woman and the pendulum of a grandfather clock, a comparison built in stages, starting with the way she walks, “from side to side,” to the “balanced heaviness and lightness” of her steps. Perfectly weighted in that simile also rests the whole story: Phoenix Jackson is headed to town to buy medicine for her chronically ill grandson, a long journey repeated “as regular as clockwork” we’re told in the final pages, which also hint that the grandson may be dead. She is an ordinary old woman hobbling through “dark pine shadows;” she’s also Time, ticking back and forth on an endless errand. On her way, Phoenix surmounts obstacles, confronts monsters and outwits foes, an odyssey signaled visually, metaphorically, even structurally in nearly every sentence. Devotion to love is heroic; it’s also the only reason to keep going.

There’s the “idea.” But according to Welty, the story began when she glimpsed an old woman walking through “a winter country landscape.” She “invented” the errand for the woman because it was logical; “what other errand,” Welty asks, “other than for someone else would be making her go?” The evolution of this story, in other words, was cellular. A single image contains the nucleus of the narrative, just as each sentence generates its literal and mythic dimensions—the vital mitochondria. As Welty says of the figure that became Phoenix, “her going was the first thing, her persisting in the landscape was the real thing, and the first and the real were what I wanted and worked to keep.” The metaphorical leap from “going” and “persisting” to a hero’s journey is worked out sentence by sentence, step by step.

One of my own heroes, William Strunk, Jr., argues in The Elements of Style that a sentence “should contain no unnecessary words… for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.” Every word, he insists, must “tell.” Likewise, even simple descriptive sentences “tell” in a good story. Here’s another example, this one from John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” a story about, among other things, a family gathering at their New England summer house and the battle between hedonism versus puritanism:

In the early heat, the roses in the garden smelled like strawberry jam.

This is a lovely sentence. It looks like a decorative sentence. But this sentence—like every other sentence in the story—matters. It matters that sentence by sentence Cheever gradually intensifies the conflict between the narrator’s determination to celebrate life’s “surface beauty” and his younger brother’s determination to dwell on “realities,” specifically that their house is built on an eroding cliff and will soon fall into the sea while everyone is smelling the roses. Warring impulses exist in all of us, Cheever implies, especially the impulse toward pleasure versus the fear of being punished for it; in fact, an early draft of this story had the two brothers as one character. That the roses in the garden smell like strawberry jam is not simply a nice detail; it carries a bit of the story’s genetic code.

I stress this point because self-conscious lyricism—sentences that pirouette but lead nowhere—can also be deadly, calling too much attention to the writer and distracting from the narrative. “Good prose,” said George Orwell, “is like a window pane.” The best stories operate subliminally, each sentence working to transport us to a different time and place than the one we inhabited before we began reading. Each sentence also illuminates, as subtly as possible, unexpected connections, unexpected sympathies, and unexpected definitions. A really fine sentence is logical, yet surprising. It knocks the dust off the familiar and we forget about the sentence itself as we marvel at what is revealed.

But back to my frustrated student. I’m afraid I’ve made him sound bumptious when I understand his anguish only too well. Who doesn’t “just want to write?” Yet, writing requires extraordinary patience and a hundred drab pages will never equal a single marvelous sentence. So what to do? All I can tell you is what I do. I read writers whose sentences fill me with longing, such longing that they send me back to my own sentences, hoping to infuse them with life—though often I wind up with golem sentences and, like Dr. Frankenstein, have to get rid of them before they run amok and kill the whole story. That silly phrase “Murder your darlings” should be revised to “Murder your monsters.” Nothing is more monstrous than lifelike. Go for the real thing.

Which is why the sentences I really love make me despair, because they provide not just a glint of life but an entire vibrant world, like this sentence from Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”:

Soon they saw poplars, a garden, then the red roofs of barns; there was a gleam of the river, and the view opened on to a broad expanse of water with a windmill and a white bath house: this was Sofino, where Alehin lived.

Chekhov’s own advice about sentences? “Seize the little particulars,” he wrote to a friend. Because in writing, at least, the particular is what matters.

Suzanne Berne’s first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in 1997, published in Great Britain in 1999, and won the coveted Orange Prize for fiction, from a short list that included Toni Morrison and Barbara Kingsolver that year. She has since published two critically acclaimed novels: A Perfect Arrangement and The Ghost at the Table, as well as her most recent book, Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew, part biography and part memoir. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the N.E.A., the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation and nominated for an Edgar Award and the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award. She has taught at Harvard University, where she was a Briggs-Copeland Fellow for a year and a half, Harvard Extension School, the Radcliffe Institute and Wellesley College. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Boston College and, to our great joy, she is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop!