Sunday, July 09, 2006

One true sentence

Ernest Hemingway often said his lifelong goal was to write one true sentence.

Hemingway learned early on a lesson many writers have never bothered with, to the detriment of their work and the expense of several hundred thousand trees -- put something on paper that matters.

A college professor once read a creative fiction assignment by one of his students. When finished, he ripped it up. "Now," he said, "go put something down on paper that matters to you."

The student did. The professor gave him an A and smiled. "If it doesn't matter to you," he said, "it won't matter to the reader."

Hemingway did his best work early. His two best novels, "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Farewell To Arms," were both written by 1930. One could argue his most brilliant prose can be found in his short stories.

Oh, he did some memorable stuff later. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" comes to mind. As does "The Old Man and the Sea," which won him a Nobel Prize.

As much as I admire long, complicated prose, terse, cogent writing is always the best. Guess that's the reporter in me. You tell me which sentence sounds better:

Barney the dog ate his breakfast at 6 a.m., as the sun rose above the clouds, and the wind blew mist around the farm house.

The dog ate.

See what I mean?

One of the best such sentences is in the Bible. "Jesus wept." Not much more needed to be said.

I have this theory that newspaper reporters often make the best writers. Hemingway would certainly fall into that category. Bruce Catton. Pete Hamill.

Although not from that background, Faulkner has to be dealt with if you're seriously going to write. But be prepared. He fits no one's mold but his own. Carmac McCarthy's in his own universe.

Larry McMurtry's good. "Lonesome Dove" is the best piece of American fiction written after World War II. (Sorry, Roth.) His early work does well, too, especially "The Last Picture Show" and "Moving On."

I like the Lost Generation writers. Papa Hemingway, of course. Scott Fitzgerald. One or two others.

Course, if you really want to read about the numbing effect of World War I, find a copy of "Good-bye To All That" by Robert Graves. It's poetry.

The best writing these days? A lot of it is in the New Yorker. I don't read much modern fiction at all. Charles Frazier had a good story a few years back in "Cold Mountain." I hear he's doing another one. If you like Southern humor, it's hard to go wrong with Fannie Flagg.

I guess what I look for more than anything else is something that feels real. Something that's written well. Something that gets the job done without going the long way around the barn.

One true sentence. Not a bad goal, huh?


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