Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Forgetting about writing so you can write

Over at the Tin House blog, they're doing an occasional series called "The Art of the Sentence." In the current installment, Jaime Quatro sings the praises of a sentence by Denis Johnson. I won't reprint the sentence here, but, as Quatro points out, "Read the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the rhythm and pulse of the elevated tracks—structure informing content, music suited to subject matter."

Indeed. The sentence really does make you feel like you are right there in the train car, watching squalid snatches of other people's lives flicker by. And this makes me realize that Johnson, at some or possibly many times in his life, really paid attention while he was riding in such a car. That is to say, he wasn't sitting there thinking: I've got to pay attention to all this so I can write about it later. All right, maybe he thought that at some point during the experience. But in order to register this much sensory detail (sights, sounds, the physical sensations of rhythm), he had to be, as we say in California, fully present in the moment. He was not thinking (yet) about what he was going to write and how he was going to write it. He knew those answers would come later. He is a writer, after all; there should be no need to remind oneself of this fact constantly, if one is a real writer. In the train car, he was where he was, and experienced the experience. That's the only way this sentence could have happened.

So: while we are out and about, away from our machines and the actual physical process of writing, we need to be exactly where we are. We will do our writing a great favor by forgetting about it when we aren't doing it. If we are truly present where we are, we will absorb--and remember--the kinds of experiential detail that make sentences like Johnson's truly stand out.

Experience is craft.

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