When I began writing at the relatively advanced age of 33, I was no longer innocent about many things, but I was still innocent about reading. Sure, I had learned in school to find the themes in Jane Eyre and to read for detail: What book is Jane reading as the novel opens?
But the latter question was designed for the teacher’s purposes more than for mine (Had I read the book?) and the former, while slightly more useful, was aimed at getting me to write something that no one but the teacher would ever read. No one would ever want to.
How did one go about writing something that was worth another person’s time? John Barthe told his writing students that they had to read, “no longer innocently, and preferably massively.” I stopped reading innocently. This included re-reading and trying to tease out the elements of plot development and character arc. But it also included excising sentences and looking at them freed from the camouflage of their context.
From The Mountain Lion by Jane Stafford:
“Now, in the shade of the summery tree, they felt doomed to failure.”
From The Victim by Saul Bellow:
“The fear that Leventhal felt, though deep, lasted only a second, a single thrust.”
Here are two sentences, chosen almost randomly—I opened the books and took them from the first page I came to—from novels that were important to me in my development as a writer. These books are packed with sentences that are evocative, poetic, tense, sentences that hint at complex and changeable characters who are somehow out of synch with their surroundings. But I don’t have to tell you all that—you get it in far fewer words from the sentences themselves. Well, that is the kind of effect I was now trying to create.
I love many kinds of books, but when I am writing, I try to read books that will help me with my work. This includes non-fiction, since most novels necessitate some sort of research, but what really inspire me are books that I can read at the sentence level. A recent book with astonishing sentences is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. Don’t read it if you insist on plot, for there isn’t any. But if you like superhuman powers of observation and startling juxtapositions, give it a try.
Here is one of my own sentences from something I am still working on:
“She couldn’t protect her children from growing up and having to provide the illusion of warmth for someone else.”
I like it because it tells you something about the character and her circumstances without a lot of exposition. I tend to like hints and implications rather than explanations and descriptions, but getting across everything you need to in this way is a huge challenge. For the past 25 years I have struggled with this—and I am struggling still.
Charlotte Rogan graduated from Princeton University in 1975. She worked at various jobs, mostly in the fields of architecture and engineering, before teaching herself to write and staying home to bring up triplets. An old criminal law text and her childhood experiences among a family of sailors provided inspiration for The Lifeboat, her first novel. After many years in Dallas and a year in Johannesburg, she and her husband now live in Westport, Connecticut.
Charlotte’s debut novel, THE LIFEBOAT, is this month’s book club selection.