Do You Like Sentences?


So, you want to be a writer. Good for you. Welcome to the club. We’re a quiet group, generally, but quite fun once you get to know us. Also we like to make Doctor Who references and fight about oxford commas. But in a fun way, you know?

Now, first things first. What do you want to write about? Take your time. It’s okay. Think it through.

You like fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, and historical fiction? Good that’s a great start. Whatever you’re into is great as long as it’s something you’re interested in and that you’ll enjoy writing about.

Now, I’m going to ask you a tough question: Do you like sentences?

No, seriously.

If you don’t like sentences, we should probably stop right here. I’m not being facetious. Really, if you’re here for anything other than writing a nice sentence, I’m not sure we can help you. And I’m not sure writing is for you.

What’s that? Oh, you’re right. I’m definitely not that clever. I totally stole that whole “loving sentences” thing. It actually comes from Annie Dillard:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”
“Well,’’ the writer said, “I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?’’
The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint.’’

What you have to understand — and what Dillard is getting at here — is that there is a difference between enjoying the process of putting words together to form sentences and wanting to be A Writer (with a capital W).

A Writer is an image, a persona, an affectation. Whereas a writer (small w) simply loves sentences — the act of writing itself.

For every mythologized Writer, like Hemingway, Kerouac, or Twain, there are a million Salingers, Pynchons, and T.S. Eliots who just want to be left alone to write sentences. Even those bigger-than-life personas really just wanted to write sentences. (Case in point, even Hemingway said that to get started writing all you have to do is write “one true sentence.”)

Look, I’m not trying to be difficult or discourage you. That’s not the point.

I feel for you. I really do. It’s easy to get caught up in the success of J.K Rowling or Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer and think that writing is your calling because you want to hang out in cafes, drinking coffee while the royalties roll in under the deafening sound of your Booker Prize.

There is nothing wrong with having role models or high hopes.

The thing is, when you are 1,000; 5,000; or 20,000 words into your novel, and you’ve run out of inspiration and you realize the thought of Jennifer Lawrence playing the lead in the movie version of your best-selling novel is a bit far fetched and the paparazzi flashbulbs are just the flickering fluorescent lights in the library you’re sitting in — what will you fall back on if not the sentences?

Enjoying having finished writing is not the same as enjoying writing, you see.

By the confusion on your face, I can see I may have to go a bit deeper here.

Let’s put it this way: inspiration is not your friend.

You may think it is, but when it abandons you just after you’ve hit a snag in your storyline, and you don’t know what to type next, you have nothing to fall back on but the love of hitting your fingers on the keyboard. There is nothing else but spelling words and thinking about how your subject and you predicate work together to express a coherent idea that will inspire you to write another sentence. And another. And another after that.

Even if those sentence are absolute shit. In fact, especially if they’re shit. But it doesn’t matter if they’re shit because you loved putting them on the page. (And you can always go back and make them better later.)

That is what’s going to motivate you to keep writing.

That is what’s going to keep you writing when publishers are not knocking down your door, and the hard work you put into your novel amounts to nothing but a pile of pages that your close circle of friends reads and compliments you on.

That thing — that magical satisfaction you get from making words appear on a page — that’s it. That’s the secret of being a writer.

You have to feel that the sound of a keyboard — the click, clack, click — that makes words appear on the page is a miracle you want to experience over and over again.

So, is that something you’re interested in? Is that what you want to do? Do you like sentences?

Join the club.