Writer in Residence · 05/13/2013

Do you love sentences?

One of the wonderful things about an origin story is the suddenness with which it can strike. One day you’re living your ordinary life… then, blam, revelation: you see, say, taste, touch, hear, smell something that forever changes things. For me, it started innocently enough in a college classroom. A creative writing professor had us go outside for a twenty-five minute walk in silence with the idea of gathering a few images. It was a month-long course in May, the first sunny day after a week of rain. I remember feeling amazed at the possibility for stories all around us. There: a baby’s car seat in a rusty pick-up truck. There: a rotten porch-swing in a backyard. I started thinking about the lives these objects represented — and the loves, struggles and hurts that accompany us wherever we go. I wanted to write and write.

When we got back to class after that walk, everyone went around and said their image, none of which were too memorable. Then the professor told us: she had noticed the tulips, the bright red ones whose pedals the rain had knocked down. She said they reminded her of prom dresses the day after prom. And I saw the flower, the dress, the dress collapsing. There was something sad about it all. And beautiful. And right.

I wanted to know how she had done that, how she had culled such magic from a simple and direct metaphor. And if I could do it, too.

I imagine many students feel similarly inspired and challenged in Cathy Day’s fiction courses at Ball State University. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. You are young and uncertain and have somehow screwed up your courage to ask the most successful writer you have ever met whether you, too, might be a writer. Maybe it’s just after class, in the hustle-shuffle of books closing and conversations starting up. She stops loading books in her pack, looks you in the eye and asks point blank, “Do you love sentences?”

And in the middle of that classroom, that afternoon, a feeling spills over you: you won’t ever again be the same writer.

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First, You Must Love Sentences

by Cathy Day

Sometimes my students say, “Tell me whether or not I’m really a writer. Because if I’m not, then I’ll find something else to do with my life.”

When this happens, I have this speech I give called “Am I a writer?” You can read it here.

But I also ask them, “Do you love sentences?”

If they look at me funny, then I know there’s a problem.

This is what I mean:

When I was in the sixth grade, my teacher made us memorize the Gettysburg Address. And just by reading it on the page, I heard the music of those words in my head.

But my classmates delivered the address in a rushed monotone:

Fourscoreandsevenyearsagoourfathersbroughtforthonthiscontinentanewnationconceivedin libertyanddedicatedtothepropositionthatallmenarecreatedequal.

Until that day, I thought fiction was about “story” only. Aristotle’s beginning, middle, end. I loved being inside a vivid, continuous fictional dream. But when I heard my classmates swallowing those words, I realized that fiction is also comprised of sentences capable of providing pleasure.

About a year later, I decided to improve myself and read better books. That’s how I came to be reading George Eliot’s Silas Marner. I came across this passage:

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child’s.

When I reached the end of that second sentence, I felt my heart move — the way it did whenever I saw the boy I had a crush on. The way it did in church when we sang my favorite hymn. Suddenly, I felt like I was floating an inch off my bed.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes:

There is a way in which even complex prose is quite simple — because of that mathematical finality by which a perfect sentence cannot admit of an infinite number of variations, cannot be extended without aesthetic blight: its perfection is the solution to its own puzzle; it could not be made better.

Exactly. Fourteen years old, and I realized that that was what I wanted to do: write words and sentences that would make other people feel something.

That was thirty years ago.

I’ve been teaching fiction writing for twenty years now, and one thing I’ve discerned is that my students fall into one of three groups:

  1. Students who are proficient at the sentence level but suck at story.
  2. Students who are proficient at the story level but suck at sentences.
  3. Students who are proficient at both.

My least favorite type of student is a B, Story-Over- Sentence Student. To me, it’s the equivalent of a music major who can’t carry a tune or a colorblind art major.

They’re like me, pre-Gettysburg Address. Pre-Silas Marner.

Maybe they’ll never have those moments. Maybe it’s not in them.

In his essay about his own creative writing apprenticeship, John Barth said, “I [had] an all but reality-proof sense of calling, an unstoppable narrativity, and I believe a not-bad ear for English.” He compares this kind of writer with its opposite,

Young aspiring writers with a strong sense of who they are and what their material and their handle on it is, but little sense of either story or language… by far the less promising, although I would be reluctant to tell the patient so.

Barth believes that “essential imaginativeness and articulateness, not to say eloquence, are surely much more of a gift.

You can tell within a paragraph of two whether someone is proficient at the sentence level.

And honestly, if I had my druthers, if students had to “audition” for undergraduate creative writing programs the way they audition for other arts programs, I’d pick the Sentence-Over-Story Students. Every time. There’s nothing more essential to the art of fiction than knowing what a good sentence looks like, sounds like, the power it has to change the world.

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Cathy Day was born and raised in Peru, Indiana, which is best known as a circus town, but is also the birthplace of Cole Porter and the Spanish hot dog. She is the author of two books. Her most recent work is Comeback Season (Free Press, 2008), part memoir about life as a single woman and part sports story about the Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl season. Her first book was The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004), a fictional history of her hometown. She’s held teaching positions at Minnesota State University-Mankato, The College of New Jersey, and the University of Pittsburgh. Currently, she lives in Indiana and teaches at Ball State University.

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posted by Steve Edwards