I learned the sentence by reading it. I made the sentence by writing it.
It is incredibly easy and at the same time incredibly difficult to teach someone to write a sentence. Grammar is grammar. Commas aren’t semi-colons. A clause is either independent or it relies on something. Start with something big – a Capital – and end with something tiny. But a sentence, oh a sentence, can be so much. I can’t teach someone what to write. I can only tell them what they can’t.
Write one sentence that is true, said Hemingway (said everyone since.) Well, can you even write a fake sentence?
You can not write a sentence. You can write a fragment. You can write a run-on sentence. You can leave blank space or you can choose not to pick up the page at all. I can’t teach you to write a sentence. Sentences come from you.
Sentences come from you. Words come from a dictionary.
I learned the sentence by reading sentences. I read them pieced together into books. I read them in essays. I read them in poems (sometimes they weren’t real). I read them in articles and I read them in school. I read them in French and a few times I read them in Swedish and I didn’t understand them.
I read sentences. I still read sentences.
When I speak I don’t speak in sentences. I speak in ideas. That’s why me speaking is nonsensical. I am a sentence maker, not an idea person. I am a writer. I write sentences.
It makes sense that to write well you have to read well. I read often; I don’t know that I read well. I read to get to the end of books, I read to flag good lines, I read to feel something, so I read fast and I read all-consumingly.
It has come to my attention that I am doing it wrong. I should read to understand my own writing.
As I write, the words and the sentences come to me quickly. The shape of the story doesn’t come as easily. I’ve spent over a year now with my story, but jaw-dropping things will happen frequently throughout my day; my book will call out for enormous, ground-breaking changes to which I will acquiesce with a simple, enlightened, “Oh.”
My book speaks to me in its voice, but not its plot structure. I’m not a chemist. I’m not a calculus major. I am a wordsmith; I smith words. I pile them and rearrange them like this will make a story. Then I try to vocalize the story’s main problem in words (and not written words), and all is lost.
Where is my plot? Can I find it in the books I am currently reading? Can Home by Toni Morrison, and The Outcast by Sadie Jones and Charming Billy by Alice McDermott tell me something about Jillian’s story? Or should I go back to Hemingway. Should I dissect books that have moved me?
I hate it, I hate the structure. But I know it makes the book. I know I read quickly, unstoppably, because I want to get to the end of the story, not the melody of the last line. But how do people do it, the story thing?