Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Last Lecture: What matters more: Story or Sentence?

Every time I teach novel writing, I end the semester with a “Last Lecture” on a topic that’s been on my mind all semester long. Last spring, I wrote about learning to self-identify as a writer; this post, “Am I Writer?” has been viewed about 1,500 times. And Google Analytics tells me that people spend an average of eight minutes on this post–which is not that surprising when you consider how urgently people need an answer to that question. This semester, I’ve decided to write about whether a novelist should focus more on The Story or The Sentence.

Kameron and Kayla won my “Most Words Drafted Contest”? Why? What set them apart? 

Both wrote scene-driven fiction with lots of dialogue. They took my advice and “sketched” their novels, temporarily suspending concern for “good writing” at the sentence level and focused on “getting the story down.”

In Anne Lamott’s famous essay “Shitty First Drafts,” she makes a distinction between the Down Draft (getting the words down on the page) and the Up Draft (fixing up the words on the page).  What I’ve learned from teaching this class for a few years is that those of you who are able to compartmentalize the writing process into these two modes have a much easier time getting your Weekly Words done. The class itself all but demands that you do Down Drafts, although many of you just cannot bring yourselves to write shitty first drafts and spend a lot of time doing Down and Up drafting simultaneously. This is fine. It’s your life. It’s your time. But it won’t give you a better grade. 

Kameron and Kayla won the Most Words Drafted Contest. Are their partials flawed at the sentence level? Do their manuscripts show signs of having been written quickly?

Yes. Definitely.

And this is okay with me. In this particular class.

Why? Because ultimately, I think that you have a better chance of publishing a novel if you can learn how to write a sort-of-shitty first draft. Because before you can publish a novel, you have to actually write one. The whole freaking thing.

Sentence vs. Story

I don’t understand why some people simply do not recognize awkward writing (their own or someone else’s).

And yes, I also recognize that what constitutes “good” and “bad” writing is rather subjective. (Here’s a great article about that.)

In his essay “It’s a Short Story” 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 (driven, prolific, a decent wordsmith) 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 believed that “essential imaginativeness and articulateness, not to say eloquence, are surely much more of a gift.”

I’m living proof that even if you lack those essential gifts, you can develop them. I wouldn’t teach creative writing if I didn’t believe this was so.

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

A.  Students who are proficient at the sentence level but suck at story.
B.  Students who are proficient at the story level but suck at sentences.
C.  Students who are proficient at both. (Rare.)

I can tell within a paragraph or two whether someone is an A. I know it because I’m able to “just read” the prose. As Hawthorne said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”

And I don’t mean that the A’s write “lyrical prose.” I mean they can write what I like to call “invisible prose,” functional sentences that do not distract nor draw attention to themselves. It’s prose that’s maybe just a tad underwritten, the opposite of overwritten. An A is novelist who can do what Willa Cather was talking about here:

“I don’t want anyone reading my writing to think about style.
I just want them to be in the story.”

It takes a lot longer to discern whether someone is a B, proficient at the story level, which is more about structural skill. Because I have to read the whole thing.

Honestly, my least favorite kind of student is a B, the ones who suck at sentences. They are my least favorite because I’ve never–not in 20 years–been able to figure out a way to help them other than to point out their weak sentences. This is what my MFA thesis director, Thomas Rabbitt (a poet) taught me: how to take out my own eyeballs and read my work through the eyes of someone else.

Honestly, a creative writing student who cannot consistently craft a graceful, clear sentence is (to me) the equivalent of a music major who can’t carry a tune or a colorblind art major.

I’ve had more than one student tell me that great stories take shape in their heads, and they speed-write them down because they speed read fiction, too. They consume stories as quickly as possible, and so when they turn to writing–not reading–stories, they do the same thing. Having spent years ignoring sentences for the sake of “getting the gist,” they unconsciously assume that readers won’t notice the sentences.

Honestly, that’s exactly how I read when I was young. Voraciously. Quickly.speed-read

I accomplished this by reading the scenes only and skimming the words and paragraphs in between the scenes. I’d learned that all the important plot points were almost always conveyed in scenes, so my eye would travel down the page until I found a sentence like, “Cassandra took a deep breath and prepared to enter the sitting room.” Or I’d look for an exchange of dialogue—which is usually apparent to the eye just by looking at a page.

I focused on the scenes only because it was scenes that brought me into the vivid and continuous fictional dream of the story, and that’s the experience I wanted: to crawl into the dark portal on floor 7 ½ and be inside John Malkovich or Stephen’s King’s Carrie White or Judy Blume’s Tony Miglione or C.S. Lewis’ Lucy and Edmund Pevensie. I didn’t much care if the main character was male or female, young or old. I just wanted to be inside them for awhile until the book ended and I found myself stranded along the New Jersey Turnpike.

Discovering Sentences

And then something happened.

My sixth-grade teacher required us to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Did Mr. Schwartz read it aloud? Did we watch a video or listen to a recording? I don’t remember. But still, I recognized the beauty of those words without being presented with external evidence of the way they should sound. Just by reading them on the page, I heard the cadence, the rhythm, the inflection, the musicality of the words in my head.

But when it came time to recite them from memory in front of the class, my classmates delivered the address in a rushed monotone:

Fourscoreandsevenyearsagoourfathersbroughtforthonthiscontinentanewnationconceivedin libertyanddedicatedtothepropositionthatallmenarecreatedequal.

This is when I realized that stories are made of sentences capable of providing their own pleasures. It was as if I’d never noticed sentences before–and suddenly–there they were!image

I realized that words are variables in a syntactical equation, and if you can come up with the right order, the perfect equation, those words can affect people.

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.

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 A’s over the B’s. Every time. Because I believe it’s much harder to teach someone how to write a good sentence than it is to teach them how to write a good story.

Feel free to disagree with me if you want.

Micro vs. Macro

Perhaps now that I’ve told you how much I value good writing at the sentence level, you can appreciate how difficult it is for me to teach a class in which sentence-level proficiency isn’t all that important.

What counts is that all of you did exactly what I asked you to do: start writing a novel as fast and as well as you can.

As I read all of your partials these last few weeks, I could have marked an infinite number of things that weren’t working yet or needed to be fleshed out or needed to be eliminated. But I tried really hard not to do that. I tried not to focus on the micro and focused on the macro instead.

But don’t forget the micro is really important.

In the film A Beautiful Mind, John Nash looks at a wall of numbers—intercepted radio signals from Moscow, supposedly—and some official-looking dudes ask him to break the Russian’s secret code. He stares at the numbers. Some begin to glow more brightly than others. He’s able to look past the physical numbers and discern emerging patterns under and within the numbers.

It’s like me, seeing the sentences under and within a story for the first time.

In the film Amadeus, Salieri hears “the very voice of God” just by perusing Mozart’s sheet music. As he reads the notes on the page, we hear the fully orchestrated music inside Salieri’s head. He doesn’t need to hear the music played to know that “displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”

What I’m trying to tell you is that a good book operates on many levels.

Sentence.

Scene.

Story.

It takes a while to discern those levels—if you ever do. And it takes a while to acquire proficiency at all those levels—if you ever do. This semester, we focused on Scene and Story, but make no mistake: Sentences Matter.

If you’re not sure if you’re a Sentence Person of a Story Person, read this great essay by Gary Lutz, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place.” 

Teaching Writing

13 comments

  1. I feel your anxiety in that you are emphasizing the importance of something that you didn’t actually cover during the semester. I’ve been there. Kind of like a parent saying to his son that even though he is spending $2000 on a trip to Vegas it’s REALLY important to save money. Here’s an idea. (It was actually raised by a student the last time I taught novel writing.) Do a followup course in which the students are required to “up” their drafts. The entire semester is about revision, including sentence-level revision. There are a lot of practical complications with this scheme (e.g., all the students in the first course would have to have time in their schedules to take the second), but I think it could probably be made to work.

  2. Cathy Day says:

    At the moment, it’s not possible for me to teach the followup course, but eventually, that’s what I’d like to do: teach this as a two-semester sequence, Spring (getting it down) to Fall (fixing it up) with Summer in between to finish getting it down.

  3. Scott Bugher says:

    Great post, Cathy. I love the New Jersey Turnpike reference. Charlie Kaufmann is a huge influence on my short story ideas.

    The whole thing with Barth and “gifts” puts a knot in my stomach. Words like gifted, blessed, talented and anointed really make me want to ring the neck of my music teacher from sixth or seventh grade. He advised that I shouldn’t bother with music since, according to his testing, I didn’t have the ears for it. He believed music belonged to a “special” group of people, which is a shame. What if I believed him? I want to send him a letter with my CV and ask what his “special” students wound up doing.

    Now to sound like a hypocrite. I’ve been known to do so–

    “If I had my druthers, if students had to ‘audition’ for undergraduate creative writing programs the way they audition for other arts programs…” On this quote, I just had to say, I’ve had a couple of debates with CW profs about this over the years. I am a believer in the audition and portfolio review. They belong in creative writing programs. Without them, I feel CW is trivialized as an art and looked upon more as a fun little hobby for everybody. I don’t know if this makes my comments on being “gifted” sound hypocritical, but there needs to be a bar. I had to submit my portfolio for Herron since I started school as a fine arts major. It went over well, but I sort of fell in love with writing before I moved forward with painting. When I began my CW program, I wasn’t relieved that I didn’t have to turn in a portfolio first. Instead, I was a bit discouraged that no standards existed. One might argue, “Well, what if your portfolio didn’t cut it.” I’d honestly reply, “It would sting a little, but would motivate me more than anything to improve and try again.” It’s not too difficult to buy a Burroway or Goldberg book and practice on your own.

    Okay, I could harp forever. If you ever get the chance to look up “Ian McEwan on Undergraduate Creative Writing” on Youtube, you should check it out. He’s a bit of an extremist, believing undergrad should be reserved only for reading and writing should should begin at grad level, but he makes some pretty valid arguments.

    Shutting up now. You rock, Cathy!

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks. Well, your distaste for the labels “gifted, talented” DOES sort of negate the desire for “standards.” This is why so few undergraduate CW programs require a portfolio review or “tryout.” Because we know that students CAN get better.

  4. Cathy,

    Great post, so wise. I love making sentences and have had to struggle with story myself. They do seem two related but different animals, those skills. Now I know you used the Fish cover as a great illustration, but his book kinda sucks (an unmelded compilation) as well as annoys, like the man himself (maybe two good chapters, though forgettable, for me). If you want an inspiring book on writing sentences, by a devotee of the “genre of the sentence,” try Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg.

  5. Hi Cathy,

    I’ve just had the time to read this all from beginning to end. My own type is/was the suck-at-sentences, good-at-story. Want me to share what I did? 😛

    A few years ago I was with a friend of mine, who’s an editor and who is amazing with sentences. I’d finished writing one of my bad-sentenced stories, which she’d underlined thoroughly, and she offered me one of her unfinished ideas.

    There was nothing much in that story. There wasn’t any plot I could discern, but it was beautiful. So I stood there in front of the computer, wondering what she had and I didn’t. Not like a spurned girlfriend, either. Genuinely wishing to know: why was her story good when there was no story at all?

    Answer: grammar and syntax and a play between abstract words and concrete words.

    Let’s put Marquez under the microscope, because he’s so good at the sentence thing:

    “Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur.”

    Long sentence, no returns to previous statements, therefore creating a ‘flow’.

    Words:
    -concrete: weekend, vultures, president, palace, pecking, screens, balcony, windows, flapping, wings, stagnant, dawn, Monday, city, awoke, lethargy, breeze, dead, rotting
    -abstract: time, centuries, great, grandeur

    The general concreteness lends strength of imagery to the abstract. There’s also a large use of detail, for vividness. The more concrete detail you add, the more vivid everything becomes. If a word is a real ‘thing’ that you can picture easily, then it’s concrete. If you can’t touch the thing it represents, nor do you have a very hands-on feeling of what it is (day, dawn), it’s abstract.

    If you look at Hesse’s work, there’s a lot of abstract, which means that the prose automatically becomes more philosophical.

    There’s no repetitiveness here, but if there were (“she was twirling, dancing, swirling in joy”), that’s a sort of slow, focused attention for the object in question. The closer you get, the more details you notice, the closer the reader will feel. Any sort of writing is like a metaphor: the meaning of words carries over to other words.

    And so on.

    I’ve played with it. It’s fun. Trying to pull a Marquez is wonderful, because Marquez has so many things you can imitate. I’ve done some experiments with it myself, going for something a bit more abstract: “She began her job with diligent care from the moment she first awakened from the drowsiness of the very young and into the slow comprehension of children. She first translated her own simple thoughts to the world in an agonized cry – ‘I’m hungry! I’m hungry!’ – first in the Spanish words of her parents and then repeated in the strange, native Tupi dialect of her Mestizo nanny.”

    (I now realize the story needs more editing; as usual)

    I don’t think sentence-level is so hard to teach. All you need is somebody to listen – and then for them to have enough patience until the lesson becomes natural and they no longer have to think about all this because it becomes automatic.

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