Gary Lutz, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” reprinted in The Believer in 2009 and brought to my attention by Ben Lansky. This is as good an essay on writing as I’ve read, and it satisfies a requirement for a good discussion of craft which David Cole called “determinacy.” Writing about craft is determinate when it provides concrete, actionable knowledge.
Lutz is specific; he gets into details, documents the relations between letters, thinks about the components from which, after all, writing is made. An astonishing amount of writing-on-writing (and the overwhelming majority of writers themselves) fail to do so, preferring the heights of feelings and ideas and politics and so on.
In her story “The Blood Jet,” Schutt ends a sentence about “life after a certain age” by describing it capsularly as “acutely felt, clearly flat”—two pairs of words in which an adverb precedes an adjective. The adjectives (felt and flat) are both monosyllabic, they are both four letters in length, and they both share the same consonantal casing: they begin with a tentative-sounding, deflating f and end with the abrupt t. In between the two ends of each adjective, Schutt retains the l, though it slides one space backward in the second adjective; and for the interior vowel, she moves downward from a short e to a short a. The predecessive adverbs acutely and clearly share the k-sounding c, and both words are constituted of virtually the same letters, except that clearly doesn’t retain the t of acutely. The four-word phrase has a resigned and final sound to it; there is more than a little agony in how, with just two little adjustments,felt has been diminished and transmogrified into flat, in how the richness of receptivity summed up in felt has been leveled into the thudding spiritlessness of flat. All of this emotion has been delivered by the most ordinary of words—nothing dredged up from a thesaurus. But what is perhaps most striking about the four-word phrase is the family resemblances between the two pairs of words. There is nothing in the letter-by-letter makeup of the phrase “clearly flat” that wasn’t already physically present in “acutely felt”; the second of the two phrases contains the alphabetic DNA of the first phrase. There isn’t, of course, an exact, anagrammatic correspondence between the two pairs of words; the u of the first pair, after all, hasn’t been carried over into the second pair. (Schutt isn’t stooping to recreational word games here.) But the page-hugging, rather than page-turning, reader—the very reader whom a writer such as Schutt enthralls—cannot help noticing that the second phrase is a selective rearrangement, a selective redisposition, of the first one—a declension, really, as if, within the verbal environment of the story, there were no other direction for the letters in the first pair of words to go. There is nothing random about what has happened here. Schutt’s phrase has achieved the condition that Susan Sontag, in her essay about the prose of poets, called “lexical inevitability.”
Writers who aren’t thinking of this level of detail, who aren’t working on their sentences in this manner, aren’t writing; they’re talking in text. Poetry is typically the densest, most-perfected composition, where nothing is incidental, extraneous, automatic, empty, or indifferent to form; prose can approach poetics quite closely if written with attention and concern, with equivalent obsessions for form and content; but most writing is just content: ideas that might as well be written another way, stories that could be told (and are appreciated) as memes or mirrors for selves.
I was delighted to see DeLillo cited repeatedly in the essay (which would be worth reading if only as a sample of extraordinary sentences). I adore his sentences, which combine concreteness and poetics, plainness and depth, with such easy facility that I can stare at them for minutes, come back to them again and again trying to work them out; they seem either like magic or like the result of more-than-sufficiently advanced technology, operated with cold and perfect precision.
All of Lutz’s examples and analyses are a delight, worth reading whatever one’s relationship with prose.