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People can disagree, and have, over whether a novel or a story must itself have a “purpose” apart from being beautiful. But it seems to me inarguable that the parts of a novel or a story must have a purpose within the whole. These days, when I find that a sentence I’m writing isn’t working, I don’t think about what I want that sentence to look like or to be; I don’t pull it from the page to weigh it in my hand; I don’t worry over its internal balance. I simply ask myself, “What do I need this sentence to do?” I ask myself what role the sentence plays in its paragraph, what role the paragraph plays in its scene, the scene in its story. If I can’t answer these questions, even in some inarticulate and intuitive way, then I’ve got a problem, and that problem is bigger than this one sentence.
If this bit of hard-won knowledge sounds fairly obvious, I can only say in my defense that nothing about the academic creative writing complex as I experienced it encourages this attitude. The problem goes as deep as the very name of the discipline. I suspect that the perpetual debate about whether “creative writing” can be taught would cease if we just had a moratorium on that unfortunate moniker. No good teacher thinks that creativity can be taught; no good teacher doubts that writing—in the sense of a set of tools with which a writer can tackle literary problems—can be. Yet how often are beginning writing students who are not yet up to putting together an entire story placed in front of an object and asked to describe it in writing, in the way that students of painting and drawing are asked to render still lifes or the human form? Instead, they are simply told to write something that is in turn given to other students who are asked to judge it without any reference to what the piece of writing is supposed to be doing, what part it might play in a larger whole. The result, I suspect, is lots of students doing as I did, tirelessly perfecting sentences that serve no purpose, forever chasing the fair without ever considering the fit.
My own experience as a teacher has been that students are initially resistant to writing exercises, which they see as an infringement upon their self-expression. They are likely to be impatient if you suggest that these exercises will actually give them the tools necessary for self-expression, let alone that great writing might not even have that much to do with self-expression, in the end. But if you push them on it, if you set them to specific tasks, they will see improvement almost immediately and thus be encouraged to persist. I have had students admit to a great feeling of relief at being given an assignment at which they could succeed because even though they were certain that they wanted to write, they didn’t yet know what they wanted to write, and learning both the how and the what of writing at once is an overwhelming task.
There is another way that creative writing workshops at almost every level contradict the functional view I’m proposing. In most creative writing workshops, you will be encouraged to write short stories, even if your ambition is simply to write novels. (Once you’ve “graduated” from workshops, of course, you will be encouraged to write novels, even if your ambition is simply to write short stories, but this is another matter.) The idea is that stories are easier in some way, if not to write, then to discuss in class. But if it’s true that sentences and paragraphs need to be judged as parts of a whole, then it follows that the sentences and paragraphs of a short story—which is quite obviously a dramatically different form from the novel—need to be judged on different terms than the sentences and paragraphs of a novel. Treating short story writing as preparation for novel writing suggests that a good sentence is a good sentence, irrespective of its fitness to a particular task.
Here is what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that writing ought to be transparent, that language that draws attention to itself is an extravagance. I’m certainly not saying that a novelist must have a “purely informative style.” Nor am I saying that style should be of only secondary concern. In fact, I still more or less think that style is everything. But style, as Proust said, is just a way of looking at the world. It emerges from the effort to express something other than itself. You don’t develop a style by writing sentences that have no purpose other than to be stylish, sentences that seek to be self-contained works of art.
Admittedly, some truly great novelists, like Joyce and Flaubert and Nabokov, went a long way with the belief that every sentence should be a work of art. To this observation I have two responses. First, if you have the talent of Joyce or Flaubert or Nabokov, you should immediately cease listening to anything I have to say about writing. But second, if we’re being honest, even Joyce and Flaubert and Nabokov were in their ways harmed by this belief, achieved what they did more in spite of than because of it, and did their worst work when they were most committed to that aim.
Finally, the advice to make your sentences do something doesn’t rest on a particular attitude about the function of literature. It applies equally to traditionalists and experimentalists, to realists and to metafictionists. In a way, it doesn’t matter what you ask your sentences to do, as long as you ask them to do something. But my own experience has taught me that sentences have the best chance to fit their purpose elegantly when the work they’re being asked to do is fairly modest.
CHRISTOPHER R. BEHA is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, and the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. His first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, was published in the 2012 by Tin House Books.
You can purchase The Writer’s Notebook II here.