Beautiful Pieces

Halfway through National Novel Writing Month, and the pressure is high. That’s the point, really—pressure writers to sprint through November, so they cross the finish line clutching a first draft.

Lately, though, it seems no longer enough to produce 50,000 words in 30 days. Look at these recent articles, ostensibly “encouraging” NaNoWriMo-ers during their marathon:

  • Eight bestsellers written during NaNoWriMo
  • 13 Progress Trackers to measure productivity all year long
  • 7 Steps to Revising Your Novel
  • Write like a fiend all year long!

I think we might be heading in the wrong direction. When the sprint is over, you shouldn’t keep sprinting. You should cool down.

So, when NaNoWriMo ends in two weeks, I have an idea, for a different goal.

Let’s all write a sentence. One sentence. One really good, beautiful sentence.

Ultimately, only you can say what’s beautiful, but there are a few things you might want to aim for.

One, choose your words carefully, so they have what Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence, calls logical sentence structure. The words should relate to one another, share a spiritual connection, if you will.

Like this sentence by Toni Morrison, from Beloved:

“The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

Sure, some sixth-grade English teachers might attack it with a red pencil, but notice how each word touches, in its own way, on one central idea:  The love between these characters, and its effect on them.

Plus, that pause at the start! It gives Morrison’s sentence something you should give yours—rhythm. The sentence starts, stops, pivots. The pause lets the first image sink in, of someone, split into pieces.

Also, it breaks the sentence itself into pieces — one where the speaker shatters, another for the beloved who reassembles them.

The more I think about Morrison’s sentence, the more it makes me smile. And that’s the most important thing your one, good sentence should do: It should please you.

My colleague Stacy Pershall so loves this couplet by Richard Powers, she had it tattooed on her leg:

“You make what you think might be a vase for the blooms you are carrying. You tell the stories you need to tell to keep the story tellable.”

You see the appeal, right? The logic, the rhythm, the shape. In “what you think might be a vase,” Powers summons an inchoate sense many writers share, of stories blossoming within us, pushing out toward sunlight.

It’s what writing is about, ultimately. From the pain and ugliness of life we create something so beautiful, so beloved, someone —a reader, perhaps, or you —will want to tattoo it on their body.

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