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By Alan Jacobs


In her wonderful book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells this anecdote:

A well–known writer got collared by a university student who asked, 'Do you think I could be a writer?'
 "Well," the writer said, "I don't know … . Do you like sentences?"

Since I first read this story many years ago, I have thought that the unnamed author—was it Dillard herself?—gave one of the best possible answers to that eternal question. For writing, the writing of prose anyway, is largely a matter of making sentences: hammering one together, connecting it to another, eventually framing a whole edifice. But one sentence at a time is the only way you can do it.

I may not be much of a writer, but I do like sentences; indeed I love them, and think about them a lot—shockingly often, really. I am one of the few remaining Americans blessed with the opportunity to walk to and from work each day, and as I walk I am likely to be rolling sentences around in my head. I have even stopped listening to This American Life on my iPod, the better to facilitate concentration. Sometimes, when I want extra time to consider my options—the walk is only about fifteen minutes—I take a detour to Starbucks. I enjoy the coffee, but I'm really just prolonging my commute for the sake of the sentences.

I am not sure that this obsession is wholly healthy. Not long ago I was writing an essay in which I planned to say a few words about a critic named Ilan Stavans, and I thought it appropriate to note that Stavans has a curious cultural situation: he was born Ilan Stavchansky, not in Russia or New York City or anywhere else you might expect someone with such a name to grow up, but in Mexico City. As a boy he attended a Yiddish school there, and now—he teaches at Amherst College—he seems to live at the intersections of the Yiddish, Spanish, and English languages. (You can learn more about Stavans' internal multiculturalism in his fine book, On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language.) All these reflections were appropriate, I thought, because the essay was about dictionaries, about language. But I found myself also wanting, perhaps without so much justification, to note that Stavans looks, in one photo anyway, rather like the actor Nick Nolte.

Now, at the time that I made the Nolte connection, I didn't know that Stavans was born Stavchansky; I wasn't sure what to make of the name Stavans. I just knew that he grew up in Mexico City and was Jewish. So I started trying to make a sentence based on my imperfect knowledge. Eventually I came up with something like this: "You wouldn't think Stavans was Jewish or Mexican, any more than you would think Nick Nolte (whom, to judge by the author photo on Dictionary Days, Stavans resembles) was Jewish or Mexican." But, I started asking myself, is that awkward? Does the parenthesis carry the point strongly enough? Perhaps I should use dashes instead. Now, "whom"—that's accurate, but it will sound wrong to some readers—should I rephrase? Maybe I should break the whole thing into two sentences, though getting it all into one sentence is the challenge, and therefore part of the fun … .

Lost in verbal carpentry, I did not for some time reflect that what the sentence said was probably not something I should commit to print. Of course, I was trying to make a little joke, but the reward of getting a smile from one or two readers was not worth the risk of sounding like a bigot: "Gee, he doesn't look Mexican! He doesn't look like a Jew!" Besides—the non–sentence–making portions of my brain creaked into action—Nick Nolte, though he looks pretty Northern European, did after all play an Italian in Lorenzo's Oil … and come to think of it, one of the reasons Stavans looks like Nolte is that his eyeglasses resemble the ones that Nolte wore in that movie. But wait: was it in that movie that Nolte wore the glasses? Maybe it was some other flick.

At this point it was obvious that the amount of research into film history and Nick Nolte's genealogy that I would have to do in order to justify the sentence made the sentence worse than useless to me, even if it didn't make me sound like a bigot. But the problem of how to make that point, how to construct that sentence, continued to occupy my walks to and from work long after I had decided that I wasn't even going to mention Stavans in my essay. It had detached itself from the world of purpose and meaning, and become a purely formal exercise in rhythm, balance, and the possibility of elegance. It was driving me nuts, but I couldn't let it go, and after a time I began to reflect that I was acting like a mathematician trying to solve something like Fermat's Last Theorem—except that for solving Fermat's Last Theorem Andrew Wiles won a lucrative prize and international renown, whereas for solving the Ilan Stavans/Nick Nolte Problem I would win nothing but a reputation for ethnic insensitivity.

Alas, it's not just my own sentences that occupy me thus: I can get just occupied by the equally pointless challenge of rewriting the sentences of others. For instance, in his book How Soccer Explains the World Franklin Foer gives us this: "Barcelona fans threw projectiles on the field, including sandwiches, fruit, golf balls, mobile phones, whiskey bottles, bike chains, and a severed bloody boar's head." Now, when I read that sentence this was my first and virtually my only thought: Should it really be "severed bloody boar's head"? That doesn't sound right. How about "bloody severed boar's head"?—no, that's not any better, probably because of the unnecessary information: if you have a bloody boar's head to throw, doesn't it go without saying that it has been severed? I mean, otherwise you'd just have a whole boar, wouldn't you? Clearly, the sentence would have been stronger had it ended, " … whiskey bottles, bike chains, and a bloody boar's head." Yes! Much better!

This is perhaps not the path of sanity, or virtue either for that matter. John Updike was widely reviled, and rightly so I think, for using the collapse of the World Trade Center towers as an opportunity for making beautiful sentences: "Smoke speckled with bits of paper curled into the cloudless sky, and strange inky rivulets ran down the giant structure's vertically corrugated surface," he wrote in The New Yorker; one of the towers "fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air." Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic offered the most incisive critique of Updike's approach: "Such writing defeats its representational purpose, because it steals attention away from reality and toward language. It is provoked by nothing so much as its own delicacy. Its precision is a trick: it appears to bring the reader near, but it keeps the reader far. It is in fact a kind of armor: an armor of adjectives and adverbs. The loveliness is invincible." The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda made the same point in one of his poems: "and the blood of children ran through the street / without fuss, like children's blood." Neruda, among the most metaphorically extravagant of poets, knew that in this case metaphor or simile would be obscene.

Similarly, Charles Williams once wrote, "When the means are autonomous, they are deadly." When the "means" of art, its various instruments, become detached from the human world of moral action and spiritual meaning, the damage they can do is beyond estimation. And yet the world is also full of people who, in their eagerness to tell the truth they see, ignore those instruments or employ them carelessly. It's vital to attend to the world as it is, refusing to don the armor of aestheticism; it's vital to use the "means" with the utmost skill and care, to be as vivid and elegant as possible. This is why writing is hard.

Alan Jacobs teaches English at Wheaton College in Illinois; his history of Original Sin will be published in Spring 2008 by HarperOne. His Tumblelog is here.

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