Verlyn Klinkenborg on the “genre of the sentence.”
One by one, each sentence takes the stage.
It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.
Then it leaves the stage.
It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one
It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience
Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.
It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.
It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.
—Several Short Sentences About Writing
Six years ago, in August 2006, during a writers’ gathering at Goucher College, Baltimore, I was dispatched to fetch Verlyn Klinkenborg from his hotel. He was silent, riding in my van. Then on campus he took the stage and began speaking on “The Genre of the Sentence.” No deferential joke or aw shucks warmup. He stared into the dim auditorium and lobbed oracular commandments: “Don’t believe what others believe”; “Look for gaps between sentences, paragraphs.”
He disdained sentence fragments, semicolons, and transitions. Oh, and workshopping. Was it my imagination that the hall’s temperature dropped ten degrees? He resembled a dyspeptic owl. Across the top row of seats, perched like crows, the teachers glared down at him. In between them and him, the students, fresh from their workshops, perked up. What’s with this guy?
“I had been thinking about writing about nonfiction,” he said. “I have written several hundred short sentences about writing, now a book. I’m very pragmatic. How do you get the work done, make the sentences? What do you think about when you make sentences?”
I might have read Making Hay by then. I hadn’t yet gotten to two of his later books, now among my favorite works, his collection of New York Times columns The Rural Life and his novel Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. The latter is written from the point of view of a turtle owned by Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century British naturalist and minister. White had such a captive tortoise, an object of his study and speculation. Timothy is a feat of research (Klinkenborg studied White’s journals), imagination, and prose style.
The precepts Klinkenborg aired that form the core of his new book:
• “Writing is thinking. It is hard. You must learn to think yourself. Go think. The more you do, you can remember what you thought about. Writers fail as writers because they fail to think. The literature that’s great is a product of thought and choices.”
• “Notice what interests you. Most people have no idea. Care about what you care about. Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization. Authority is ultimately something the reader holds. But vital.”
• “The sentence is the basis of your art. Think, make sentences, and revise. Rhythm is everything, first and last. Talking is natural, writing is not. It takes years of work. ‘Flow’ is not real and leads to loss of confidence. It is hard work and does not flow. Write short sentences. Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. See Orwell: Write so clearly you can see what you have not said.”
• “You need a technical knowledge of grammar and syntax. Your writing is your responsibility. You are your first and only editor. You are responsible for etymology. You will need to look up nearly every word for a while. Proofread a piece with a paper under each line. Have someone read your piece to you.”
• “Chronology is a trap. It’s not natural; our own interior world is not chronological. Always resist chronology. Narrative is very hard. Very rare, even in novels. Be the narrator. Endings are not hard. Readers—all people—are used to endings.”
• “Writing is to offer your testimony on the nature of existence. It’s a moral act. Cleverness is its own punishment. Your job is to testify.”
I’ve returned to these notes and others I took that day. Some of his statements mystify—“The architecture of neutral space is larger for a whole book”; or, actually, “Don’t believe what others believe”—but mostly I find his notions inspiring or at least bracing.
Klinkenborg writes and offers rules of thumb in the vast “plain” writing tradition named by Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction (reviewed): prose like a pane of glass to see the world clearly; the writer submissive to the world and his subject. Plain writing has carried the day for now. “Fine” writers, more rhetorical, draw attention to themselves. A recent virtuoso fine performance—dare I say clever?—is [sic]: A Memoir, by Joshua Cody. Most people work in the middle, observes Dillard.
Not Verlyn Klinkenborg. Not so much. Like Dillard he’s a plain stylist working the edge of the continuum.
Like everyone, he universalizes what works for him. He’s polished his crotchets into smooth hard pebbles. Unlike everyone, he’s a thinker, a noticer, and a maker of successful sentences.
Sometimes, not often enough, I ask myself, WWVD?