The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.
The heads of writers are filled with sentences – the unforgettable ones they’ve read along their life’s path and the nascent ones forming for their own stories. Here’s why Lahiri likes that sentence by Joyce:
This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once. It is full of movement, of imagery. It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.
How you respond to this sentence of Joyce’s is a pretty good test of whether you have it in you to be a fiction writer. Let’s say you want to write and you think writing a story is all about characters, plot points, suspense, epiphanies, dialogue, authenticity, fantasy, steampunk, and all kinds of amazing things in your head. You’re not entirely wrong, but at its most fundamental level creating a story is about playing with words on a page. As Lahiri puts it, “The most compelling narrative, expressed in sentences with which I have no chemical reaction, or an adverse one, leaves me cold.”
I agree. A story without the glory of memorable words is no story at all. So this is the daily lot of writers: to craft sentences and revise them and string them together and rearrange them and then tinker with them some more.
I also agree with Lahiri that Joyce has given us an exceptionally fine sentence, but every reader and writer will have a different set of memorable sentences. I’ve been asking myself what makes a perfect sentence, and finding it very hard to come up with general principles. Yes, a metaphor is often involved. Visual images and physical actions that imprint on the mind’s eye of the reader can be powerful. Many times emotion is expressed in a way that magically touches some emotion in you. But there are so many exquisite sentences in the universe, and of such variety, that at bottom I think a grand sentence is very like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography, “I’ll know when I see it.”
For years I’ve been jotting down sentences I like in my journal and for purposes of this post, I’ve mined a few favorites. Here are eight sets of sentences I’ll match up with anyone’s favorites.
“The evening paper rattle-snaked its way through the letter box and there was suddenly a six o’clock feeling in the house.”
From The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
“My older brother says that when I eat it sounds like an army marching through muck.”
From “The Trojan Sofa” by Bernard MacLaverty
“Except for a bumpy bulbous nose with a few broken blood vessels here and there on its bright red surface, his face is smooth and white, with the shiny licked look of a dog’s favorite bone.”
From Cockfighter by Charles Willeford
“Goodbye to the uniforms so heavy for a little girl, manly shouldered blazer and tie, black cow-hoof shoes.”
From The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai as her protagonist leaves a convent school
“They ran he and the horses out along the high mesas where the ground resounded under their running hooves and they flowed and changed and ran and their manes and tails blew off of them like spume and there was nothing else at all in that high world and they moved all of them in a resonance that was like a music among them and they were none of them afraid horse nor colt nor mare and they ran in that resonance which is the world itself and which cannot be spoken but only praised.”
From All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
“We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all that night, nor the next, nor the next.”
From Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
“Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park and achieved with her a sweet and natural relationship, as they say in books. I too once met a girl in Central Park, but it is not much to remember. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.”
From The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
“Darwin could cook a breakfast fry like no one Arthur had ever seen. He was quick and quiet and before a person had his boots tied right, the sound and smell of bacon was in the morning air and then the skillet eggs with onions and ham, sometimes with the sharp cheddar he bought in the village in a big brick, and the thick fried bread, close to burned the way Darwin had learned the other two men liked it.”
From Five Skies by Ron Carlson
What are your favorite sentences?