Tend to hold together when built for purpose; the ones built to be beautiful tend to collapse.

Christopher Beha “Making Sentences Do Something”

When I started writing seriously — by which I mean that I was serious in my intentions and commitment, which seem to me the main things a writer can control — I started by writing sentences. I spent a lot of time, sometimes a day, sometimes the better part of a week, on each one, moving its parts around, weighing the thing in my hand, struggling to achieve balance and shapeliness, waiting for all the pieces to click perfectly into place.

Paul Valéry once told André Breton that he couldn’t be a novelist because he refused to write, “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.” Fiction writing, Breton and Valéry agreed, relies too much on sentences written in this “purely informative style,” sentences of a “circumstantial, needlessly specific nature” — why five o’clock? why not five thirty? and why not a princess? In those early days of writing, I thought often of Valéry’s remark. I wanted to write fiction, but I didn’t want to write that kind of bluntly functional sentence. I wanted each sentence to be a thing unto itself, self-sufficient and entire. Needless to say, these sentences were all a long way from “The Marquise went out at five o’clock.”

Each sentence necessarily represented an end point, since it’s precisely the nature of self-sufficient things that they don’t have needs that must be met beyond their own borders. They don’t make demands that bring new things into existence. So I always felt, after finishing one, that I was starting from scratch. Naturally, I’d write another sentence, but it wouldn’t bear any relationship to the one I’d just completed. Again, necessarily so: self-sufficient things don’t have relationships.

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’ve always looked at sentences like bricks or soldiers marching.

Each brick serves a purpose in itself. It’s a singular object but its created purpose is to join with other bricks. By itself it is just a brick. Combined with other bricks it becomes a monument, a structure, a home, a bridge or a work of art. If one brick is not cut right, sealed right, or is off color, the entire object is compromised.

Did you know that Roman, Baroque and Renaissance engineers finished the arch design by adding tons of weight on top of it after it was fully erected? They did this to seal the bricks together to conform to its semicircular structure. The weight distributes compression weight through its entire form. The bricks became a singular component to take on pressure. Many still stand and are in use today.

Try this. Take a look at the Washington Monument and you’ll notice something peculiar about it. At about one-third up the monument, you’ll notice the monument takes on a slightly different color. The bottom one-third is white; the upper two-thirds has a slight rusty color. The historical reason behind this is that the federal government had to go with less expensive material due to the financial demands of the US Civil War.

The same it is with marching soldiers. If there was one thing I liked about basic training (which there wasn’t many things I liked about it), it was the marching. The technique was fun to practice and master. Our instructors taught each of us individually how to march, execute facing movements, etc., but we always did it as a group. If one person is out of sync, say, by leading off on the wrong foot it compromises the integrity of the entire group. It throws off the rhythm of the individual behind the out-of-sync soldier and so on until the entire group is shuffling and trying to correct their feet to the cadence.

There are not many things as beautiful as a well synced group marching on a parade field. There are not many things as ugly as a shuffling, bouncing group of individuals trying to march together.


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