Try This: One Sentence
The single most important part
I keep forgetting to tell you the most important part
As Tom Spanbauer explained it to me, the school of Modernism in writing began with Flaubert’s Madam Bovary and dominated until the era of Gordon Lish’s work with Raymond Carver. Per Tom and Lish, in Modernism every sentence—really, every word—serves to move the story forward. Each is a little sign pointing, “Story this way!” and, “Keep going!” It irked Tom when people tried to say Hemingway’s writing was Minimalism, when it’s actually just stripped down Modernism.
Not long ago I got into a on-air brawl with an NPR presenter who’d never read Minimalist writers, knew nothing of Lish, and insisted Hemingway was a Minimalist. Alas, our debate did not end well.
A later addition to this post: During the interview I got so flustered I asked to use the bathroom. When I came back to the studio the sound technician cupped his microphone and whispered that the on-air presenter was calling me a prima donna while I was away. Yeah, I bailed at that point, but politely.
Minimalism isn’t called that because it’s spare and stripped down. It’s called Minimalism because of the style’s devotion to each single sentence. Every single sentence. Ideally, as is the case with Amy Hempel’s work, every sentence should read like a little masterpiece. In workshop, we were always bringing in sentences we’d overheard. Once Monica Drake had asked about a cut of fish, and the grocer had told her, “That fish is the fillet mignon of sturgeon.” At another session I brought in the sentence, “I see the way you think things are.” And the table of writers fought to see who could use it first. The poetry of it.
As mentioned in Consider This I spent a decade carrying around the sentence, “I love the way you keep the mud alive.” After hearing a bricklayer shout those words at a hod carrier.
In Minimalism the sentence is everything. That’s how come so many Minimalist writers omit the typical, wordy transitions. It’s why Hempel’s stories exemplify the style. Those best stories, they read like lists or song lyrics, more like poems than like Hemingway. And that’s why it’s so easy to quote Hempel. What dogs want is for no one to ever leave. Or, The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.
Back then we didn’t listen to what people said, instead we listened for how they said it. With my full-time job I set the goal of writing one good sentence every day, and in Minimalism that was applauded. One day I’d write, It’s not so much a family as he’s setting up franchises. Or, All summer I waited for someone to ask me what happened to my face. That was a day’s work, and that was enough.
Even now my favorite sentences haunt me. You only need to look at her to know all you need to know. More recently, Part of each of us died that day, but died in a good way, and it wasn’t the best part. The best sentences have a lyrical repetition of words and sounds. Such sentences go into the notebook, and eventually get typed into a computer, and that’s when the magic happens.
A friend recently sent me this
Long before I ever wrote fiction, song lyrics captivated me. They distorted language and rhymed and repeated words—everything a copy editor will forbid you to do. And they get stuck in your head. The very “wrongness” of them makes them memorable.
For a lovely example of such stickiness and how it can change your life, read Bullet in the Brain by Tobias Wolff. They is, they is, they is. It’s not Minimalism, but it shows how burnt language can stay with a person.
If you click the link you’ll see the strange relationship between prose fiction and song lyrics. Also, check out this one. Writers have long cut up text and re-ordered it to surprise themselves, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Bob Dylan included. They get away with it because their music is the element that unifies what could be clashing and absurd word combinations. By accident I’d discovered a form of this same method: Making notes on paper, like a songwriter, but then electronically cutting and pasting them instead of using scissors.
Instead of a rhythmic beat, I could use choruses or morphing objects or a nonfiction form to hold my odd-ball sentences together. Last week I discussed writing with Hempel, and she said that after her near-fatal car accident she no longer told stories in a linear way, time-wise. Instead, she ordered the details by how they best related to each other. How they popped when placed in different sequences. To me that seems like another version of my cut-and-paste method, as well as the age-old practice of poets and songwriters.
A later addition to this post: Perhaps this is why Minimalism seems like editing film to me. Modern film juxtaposes images and allows the viewer to determine their relation. In that way it’s more intuitive than silent films that needed to show printed text to coax the audience. When I see wordy transitions in fiction they bring to mind the printed frames in silent films Meanwhile, Samantha had finished dinner and was cleaning the oven when Matthew called… The cut-up quality of Minimalism cuts prose like film. That quality allows the reader to have a greater participation. In the case of Hempel’s work the characters don’t cry, so the reader must.
That allowed me the satisfaction of writing a single sentence, often one that would take the whole day to evolve in my head. And eventually collaging together those sentences to create a scene or story. Most likely it’s my love of song lyrics that attracted me to Minimalism. The sticky, distorted quality of them. That’s the ultimate goal of Minimalist writers. The sentence.
A later addition to this post: Almost to a person, readers ask me what music I listen to. This always seemed odd, but now I see that it’s probably because they relate to the lyrics quality in my prose. For years I mentioned NIN, and one year the band Korn sent me a huge case of swag: Concert Ts, CDs, posters. But every book has a different musical inspiration, just a single song played on repeat for weeks or months.
Recently, an English teacher friend was telling me that in Shakespeare’s day a person was celebrated for how he/she could constantly reinvent spelling and grammar. A clever, literate person wasn’t constrained by standard rules. And this constant reinvention of English allowed readers a greater participation while deciphering the clever new ways phrases were coined. That’s until the 18th century when the rising middle class demanded hard-and-fast rules for speaking and writing. This led to dictionaries and hide-bound standards. The rules about fewer versus less than. All the intransitive rules about lay/lie/laid/lain. Insecure new writers and readers needed everything to be standardized. Creative reinvention was out. At the risk of condemnation, Mark McGurl and David Foster Wallace made this same point about MFA writing programs: In order to grade fiction, academia had to standardize it into three categories. More on that in a future post.
For now, my dream—and perhaps the dream of Minimalism—is to steer fiction back toward that Shakespearean era of reinvented spelling and grammar. A more intuitive, fun way of storytelling.
For homework, go read the Wolff story. It’s an excellent example of him doing the Chekhov trick of putting a powerful little story at the tail end of a longer bland one.
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