One True Sentence

Were my impulse to write anywhere near my impulse to consume ice-cream (or dark chocolate), then I would have a prodigious output. I love ice-cream, often crave it in an ‘it doesn’t matter if it is cold and dark and wet and ten o’clock at night, I’m going to out to buy some.’ Inevitably, when I want ice-cream to that extent I eat too much, then stare at a half empty tub, feel sated to the point of sick, and wonder how I could ever have wanted it in the first place. Writing is the reverse of this. The feelings and process are completely back to front. I start off feeling (not all the time, but mostly) a bit ill at the thought of sitting down to write. I will vacuum under my bed, I will darn gloves in July, I will google mince pie recipes in March, I will clean the grout between the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush, but I will not write. There is one simple trick to follow, it is tried and tested and it works. That is: begin. More than that, begin quicky. Like jumping into cold sea water, run as fast as you can and hurl yourself at the ocean (like I did yesterday at Tramore Beach into Sheephaven Bay) and before you know it you are swimming (writing). There have been occasions I’ve thought: This time it’s not going to work, this time I’m going to sit down and stare and stare and stare. However, like the ice-cream, once I start, I want to keep going, and yet unlike the ice-cream, I do not feel sick when I’ve ploughed on through. On the contrary, I feel great. I have pulled it off. I have shown up, and as Woody Allen might have said, 80% of success is showing up.

Occasionally, not often, I am aching to write. I will run to my notebook or computer if an idea takes hold, I will switch the on my bedside lamp at 2am as thoughts flood my mind, but mostly I cajole myself into showing up.

Last summer, I watched a six-part Hemingway documentary on television, and among the many gems that emerged from his life story was one of him explaining what lay at the heart of his daily writing practice: the chase to write that elusive ‘one true sentence.’ He said he would be happy with his day’s work if he had, at least, achieved this. It is a good reminder when one sits down to choke it out (or – if you are lucky – to let it flow), that the giants of the art often returned to their hours of toil only to eradicate what they had produced – to edit, underline, score out, tear up and finally locate their ‘one true sentence’. I have a friend who is not afraid to use the word ‘guff’ in relation to what I send him. The first time he said it, it felt like a punch in the guts, took me a week to return to what I had written and see the truth of what he had to say.

Joan Didion died last week. I was quite mad about her, inspired and intrigued by her. I have a file on my computer named, Interesting Writing Articles. If I had a printer, I would print them out and put them in a ring binder, but I’m not living in the nineties and a computer file is probably better. Lots are interviews I’ve read from the Paris Review, liked, and saved. I knew I had one in there with Joan Didion and so, because she’d just died, I went back to read it. It’s from 1978 when she was only 44 years old, and there she is talking about how Hemingway (not in person) taught her to write. “I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time. A few years ago when I was teaching a course at Berkeley I reread A Farewell to Arms and fell right back into those sentences. I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.”

Next year, I shall set myself the daily task of a little bit of writing. I shall lean on Virginia Woolf’s secret trick “…always to contrive that work is pleasant.” I shall pinch out the guff, remove the fluff and I shall end up with one true sentence each day. No sinkholes. Can that be so hard?

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