Prose (and Hemingway) on Sentences


Talking with a student this afternoon, I was reminded of Francine Prose’s wonderful Reading Like a Writer  which is really worth picking up if you haven’t read it yet. In it, Prose discusses the importance of paying attention to sentences and consciously thinking about your writing at the level of the sentence–something many student-writers don’t pay enough attention to:

…perhaps it will offer some comfort if I say that if you are even thinking in these terms–that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong, vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences–you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.

While Prose concedes that the essential qualities of beautiful sentences are difficult to pin down, she turns to Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry for an apt comparison (“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry”).

So, I want to ask you, what was the last sentence that made you feel that? As you read, do you pay attention to sentences in this way? 

Towards the end of the chapter, Prose discusses Ernest Hemingway’s famous passage from A Moveable Feast concerning sentences:

But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

While many of you have no doubt read this before, I think it’s worth noting that Prose pushes on what Hemingway means by “true” here. We know that he is writing fiction, so why a true sentence? Does he mean beauty? Prose concludes that the power of the above quote–and why it has been so often repeated–is that Hemingway never really says what he means by true. Maybe it’s like the Dickinson quote above in that I may not be able to fully define what he means by a true sentence, but I know it when I read one.