The Three Things That Matter in Writing: Sentences, Sentences, Sentences

Susan Scarf Merrell, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books:

In the business of storytelling, the sentence is the perfect employee — no job too big or small, independent though part of the whole, pitching in as needed: star employees represent for the company and bring glory to the entire team.

Think of “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s much-mulled-over opening sentence to Anna Karenina is a marvelous set-up of parallel ideas — the repetition of sound and word and phraseology is bold in terms of language-making, and the idea itself stated so confidently that it is not until we are far into the novel (perhaps even finished with it) that we begin to doubt the original assertion.

This piece continues today's trend of "Writers I Know Writing Awesome Things." Earlier in the semester, I gave my 1000-level creative writing students this Stephen King piece on first sentences; In the future, should I teach some later stage writers, I will certainly follow-up with Susie's piece. The building blocks of any kind of prose deserve this kind of examination and the best way to start, of course, is to look to the past.

To be fair, I think the desire to dig this deep echoes throughout your artistic sensibility; I'm fairly certain that most of my favorite artists—Stanley Kubrick, Amy Hempel, The National, Joel Peter Witkin—would find some truth in Susie's thesis. Others might not be so interested in seeing how the sausage is made. Either way, just remember—sometimes, to build the best house possible, you have to spend some time examining each and every brick.