Celebrating my new digital subscription to the New York Times and happily zooming around the site, I came upon a recent blog piece by Jhumpa Lahiri titled “My Life’s Sentences,” which is her distillation of her craft at the sentence level and a deconstruction of her process. Typically I don’t care to read about deconstruction of process—and maybe that’s strange, since I’m a writer and process is what produces not just prose but a prose of one’s own—but I liked her post, and maybe this was because of her focus on sentences.
We writers get to the final product however we get there—we can listen to how other writers get there, and maybe that knowledge will help us, but mainly, as with other types of artists, we have to find our own way. Possibly that personal, unique way (process) informs the result (product + voice) completely causally. If the former is altered, will the latter necessarily be?
I don’t know. I know that what works for me works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t, and the product is the product, and eventually it has to stop evolving and become the something that you ultimately walk away from.
But what of a discussion about sentences? These are to writers what notes are to musicians, what paint is to painters, what body parts are to dancers, and what a room’s objects are to interior designers. Taking the latter as an example: when we walk into a room that makes us feel, say, alive and stimulated, we can point to the way object, space, color, and pattern (among other things) are carefully arranged (which is to say either harmonic or purposefully discordant) to produce “sense,” to evoke the magical synchronicity of place. My experimental-composer brother once told me that, growing up, he realized that music—but more specifically, sound—“did something to [his] body.” This profound, perhaps mystical, experience of sound made him the composer he is.
Similarly, the effect that sentences (and, by extension, phrases and words) “have on my body” is responsible for my becoming the writer I am.
I did not begin with story. That is to say, although I liked stories as a child and even wrote a few (with illustrations) in grade school, my mature encounters with words, phrases, and sentences came in the form of writing poems. This was in middle school and high school, and, looking back, these early experiences formed my whole relationship with language. It was such meditative joy to lie in a quiet room and give symphonic, linguistic life to emotional impulses. Even the struggle (the search for the right word, the effect of white space or a dash, the struggle to get the “word music” exactly right) was joyous.
It was then that I, like Lahiri, could be caught anywhere with some compilation of words forming in my head, and onto that scrap of paper they went. Sometimes this random (divine?) intervention becomes the jumping-off point (or literal first line) of a work I haven’t even conceived of yet. (Is it worth pointing out that the point of biological conception happens before the mind-body is aware of it?) Sometimes the scraps of paper get scrapped. Most writers would probably agree with me when I say that the ratio of used-to-scrapped is not that important: what’s key is that the words flow, and keep flowing, because if they don’t, the body isn’t registering anything and you lose a part of yourself.
Lose how? We hear psychologists talk a lot about interpersonal dynamics. Sometimes certain personalities are continually drawn to the same kind of other personalities, and usually the context of these discussions is that the unthinking “drawing in” is hurting both people by allowing them to constantly re-enact misfortune and trauma in a futile attempt to “solve” it. The parties keep subconsciously wrestling with themselves, unable to recognize the pattern.
Like all of us struggling with dynamics and patterns, I also struggle, as a writer, with a similar confrontation—but in relation to characters and even plot. I think of this struggle as “the great wrestle” I have with any given piece of work, lately mostly fiction. The great wrestle is the frictional, anxious process of making sentences work together to create character and story. Despite now being a more mature writer, I still wander through the chaos just as I did in middle school, gathering promising pieces of half-conceived puzzles and throwing them down somewhere, forming sense out of nonsense, and not really resting until they are together both coherently and distinctively.
But the great wrestle is not just winning the fight against chaos, because as you proceed, you learn about life. The great wrestle is about learning how to think about something or someone, or some human tendency or type; it is about formulating personal and ethical internal responses; it is a constant reminder that we are all different but also exactly and maddeningly the same.
The great wrestle helps writers understand the real world, which in turn informs their fictional ones—even their fantastical ones.
And we get there word by word, sentence by sentence. The wheels keep on spinning, interpretations get re-interpreted, thoughts get thought again and again, and together they are the story of humanity.