Have Sentences, Will Travel

Recently, sitting beside my four-year-old son as we eased downward, homeward, at the midnight end of a coast-to-coast flight, I pointed out the dark window to share with him the spread of Boston’s lights below, many of them doubled in the reflection on the harbor. Leaning over my lap, Jesse strained to gaze out. “The whole city is under us!” he exclaimed. He then proceeded to shift his attention repeatedly between the view and his toy United Airlines airplane, which he lowered for landing again and again on my forearm. Back and forth he went between the real thing and the imagined. A minute later, peering down at the city’s constellations, I realized that I was experiencing my own back-and-forth between fact and fiction: the vast view through that little oval window was prompting me to recall a tightly packed sentence from Kent Haruf’s 1999 novel Plainsong that I had read — and had promptly reread — before take-off in San Francisco. Buckled in, I leaned over and dug into my carry-on.

Haruf writes of Ike and Bobby, young brothers, nine and ten, who deliver the newspaper in Holt, Colorado. “Between them,” he tells us, “they had the entire town.”

Bobby took the older, more established part of Holt, the south side where the wide flat streets were lined with elm trees and locust and hackberry and evergreen, where the comfortable two-story houses were set back in their own spaces of lawn and where behind them the car garages opened out onto the graveled alleys, while Ike, for his part, took the three blocks of Main Street on both sides, the stores and the dark apartments over the stores, and also the north side of town across the railroad tracks, where the houses were smaller with frequent vacant lots in between, where the houses were painted blue or yellow or pale green and might have chickens in the back lots in wire pens and here and there dogs on chains and also car bodies rusting among the cheatweed and redroot under the low-hanging mulberry trees.

Call it setting-by-bicycle. (And yes, it’s demanding pedaling — take a moment to catch your breath, as I did after my first reading.)

I share this single, ambitious sentence not only because of the delight I take in what Haruf achieves in it — the sprawling efficiency, the precise seeing — but mainly because my experience with it as I approached the tarmac is a good example of how sentences accompany me, or how I like them to, and how I hope they will accompany students of mine. The pleasure of juxtaposing a view or encounter with a writer’s related vision, rendered in words, can feel a bit like cheating time, like getting more out of a moment than is allowed. To keep admired or instructive sentences within reach – if not in memory, then scrawled in a commonplace book — readies one, I think, for a richer engagement with the real, which in turn aids in the art of crafting the fictional.

Certainly, working as a writing instructor and coach has led me to a finer and finer attention not only to the design of the individual sentence but to the profits to be gained from such attention when story-making. (Upon return from last year’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference, I reflected on the single sentence as the starting point.) But the origin of my focused appreciation is not in teaching; it’s in editing. I was an editor for a decade before entering the classroom, and my first editorial job in particular — assisting novelist John Irving as he performed three complete revisions of the 1,000-page manuscript of his eighth novel, A Son of the Circus — is to blame for how much of a pleased plodder I can be as a reader. In reading and rereading each revised section of each revised chapter for my boss, expected to transcribe every small change he made and to offer editorial comments, I came to know that novel sentence by sentence. As we packaged the final draft for delivery to New York, I felt that if John began reading aloud a sentence he had selected at random from the manuscript, I would be able to complete it from memory — and possibly also provide what shapes the sentence had previously taken. I trace my love of the movement in a thoughtfully designed sentence to the attention that apprenticeship demanded and encouraged.

In encouraging my students to join me in collecting sentences, I’m hoping they will establish a kind of associative network, so that their consideration of one sentence will lead to comparison to others and an expanding and informed artistic appreciation on this fundamental level. I’m reminded of and motivated by a remark by Robert Frost. “A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written,” he wrote. “We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A). We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.”

My thing is to get among the sentences.

As it happens, when I was copying out Haruf’s sentence the morning after our return home, I circled back to a sentence by John Cheever that I had once captured and that will undoubtedly play in my mind during my next trip on Amtrak. Consider it setting-by-train. The sentence is all the ticket you need to ride with poor Johnny Hake of “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill”:

I took the regular train home, looking out of the window at a peaceable landscape and a spring evening, and it seemed to me fisherman and lone bathers and grade-crossing watchmen and sand-lot ball players and lovers unashamed of their sport and the owners of small sailing craft and old men playing pinochle in firehouses were the people who stitched up the big holes in the world that were made by men like me.