Several excerpts from “Several short sentences about writing”

from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing

(note: Klinkenborg structures his sentences in poetic form; I’m turning them into prose. Deal with it.)

  1. One by one, each sentence takes the stage. It says the very thing it comes into existence to say. Then it leaves the stage. (3)
  2. Knowing what you’re trying to say is always important. But knowing what you’ve actually said is crucial. (4)
  3. These assumptions and prohibitions and obligations are the imprint of your education and the culture you live in. Distrust them. (6)
  4. Every word is optional until it proves to be essential, something you can only determine by removing words one by one and seeing what’s lost or gained. (12)
  5. Your job as a writer is making sentences…Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. (13)
  6. The relentless exploration of possibilities, the effort, over and over again, to see in what you started out to say the possibility of saying something you didn’t know you could. (14)
  7. Every form of writing turns the world into language. (14)
  8. You’ve grown up in language. (16) [Heidegger: “Language is the House of Being.”]
  9. You’ve been taught to overlook the character of the prose in front of you in order to get at its meaning. You overlook the shape of the sentence itself for the meaning it contains…” (18)
  10. “The Anxiety of Sequence.” Its premise is this: to get where you are going, you have to begin in just the right place and take the proper path, which depends on knowing where you plan to conclude. (23)
  11. In school you learned to write as if the reader were in constant danger of getting lost. A problem you were taught to solve not by writing clearly but by shackling your sentences and paragraphs together. (24)
  12. The obsession with transition negates a basic truth about writing, a magical truth. You can get anywhere from anywhere, always and almost instantly. (26)
  13. Good writing is significant everywhere, delightful everywhere. (27)
  14. You learned a strange ventriloquism, saying things you were implicitly being asked to say, knowing that no one was really listening. You were being taught to write as part of a transaction that had almost nothing to do with real communication, learning to treat the making of sentences as busywork. (30)
  15. You were also learning to distrust the reader and yourself. (31)
  16. We forget something fundamental as we read: Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t. (32)
  17. What you write – what you send out into the world to be read – is the residue of the choices and decisions you make. Choices and decisions you are responsible for. (36)
  18. But everything you notice is important. Let me say that a different way: If you notice something, it’s because it’s important. But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice, and that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice in a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions.
  19. Being a writer is an act of perpetual self-authorization. (37)
  20. A cliche is dead matter. It causes gangrene in the prose around it, and sooner or later it eats your brain. A cliche isn’t just a familiar, overused saying, it’s the debris of someone else’s thinking. (45)
  21. You’re distracted from the sentence by your intention and by wondering how soon you’ll be done. You’re distracted from the only thing of any value to the reader. (46)
  22. The problem most writers face isn’t writing. It’s consciousness. Attention. Noticing. That includes noticing language. (49)
  23. Anything you notice, whether you think it matters or not. It matters because you noticed it. (61)
  24. Every piece is an ecosystem of words and structures and rhythms. How rich and diverse is the ecosystem in each of these pieces? (64)
  25. You’re not writing for a reader in the mirror whose psychological state reflects your own. You have only your own working world to consider. The reader reads in another world entirely. (67 – and this is true for the writer who then becomes his own reader – different person!)
  26. Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat. It’s a sign of engagement. (68)
  27. If you want the reader to feel your sincerity, your sentences have to enact sincerity – verbally, syntactically, even rhythmically. (81)
  28. Writing is always a gesture requiring your dramatic presence, no matter how subtle – a presence made up of rhetorical choices: choices about who you are in relation to your subject and your reader, choices about your presence in the piece, about diction, structure, and the rigor or casualness with which your sentences are constructed or linked. The emotional power the reader feels depends on how clearly you know what your words are doing. That clarity isn’t natural. It’s artificial, the result of hard work. (82)
  29. Revision is thinking applied to language, an opening and reopening of discovery, a search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say hidden inside the sentence you’re making. (90)
  30. Outlining means organizing the sequence of your meanings, not your sentences. It derogates the making of sentences. It ignores the suddenness of thought, the surprises to be found in the making of sentences. It knows nothing of the thoughtfulness you’ll discover as you work. It prevents discovery within the act of writing. (94)
  31. The standard model wastes the contemplative space of writing. (95 – even though “essay” in its original form was all about exploration, contemplation, and discovery)
  32. You have no idea what you’re going to say until you discover what you want to say as you make the sentences that say it. Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise. Writing is the work of discovery. (104)
  33. Learn to accept the discontinuity between yourself and what you write, the discontinuity between your will, your intention, your plan and the discoveries you make as you work…Bring your intentions, by all means, but accept that the language we use is the language of accidentals, always skewing away from the course we set. (109)
  34. Anything that strikes you – anything that causes a subtle, inward sensation of discomfort, an inner alarm, no matter how faint – stop there and figure out what’s going on. (112)
  35. You can almost never fix a sentence by using only the words it already contains.
  36. Writing even one clear, balanced, rhythmic sentence is an accomplishment. (113)
  37. Writing doesn’t prove anything…It attests. It witnesses. It shares your interest in what you’ve noticed. It reports on the nature of your attention. It suggests the possibilities of the world around you. (117)
  38. Writing is a way of ordering perception, but it’s just as often a reordering of perception in a form peculiar to the writer’s discovery. (123)
  39. But what if you were to muster your own authority? I don’t mean making up facts and quotations. I mean, what if the reader trusted your prose, listened with interest to what you’re saying for the sake of what you’re saying, instead of noting the complacency, the deference, even the ceremony with which you bow to the authorities you cite? What if the reader believed, somehow, in you? Listened for your voice, not the voices of others? Watched for your perceptions? What if the reader felt your authority and though about quoting you? (126)
  40. Above all with presence – the feeling that each sentence isn’t merely a static construct but inhabited by the writer. (128)
  41. “The subject is there only by the grace of the author’s language.” Your grace, your authority, doesn’t borrow the subject’s validity: It creates it. (129)
  42. If it doesn’t interest you, how could it possibly interest anyone else? (135)
  43. Avoiding what you feel you must write is as much a part of writing as discovering what you didn’t know you could write. Every sentence is entitled to structural freedom. (137)
  44. The ordinary reader – the ordinary audience – is a barren conceit. It guarantees a shared mediocrity. Don’t preconceive the reader’s limitations. They’ll become your own. (138-9)
  45. All you’re doing is noticing what you notice. Try to resist deciding whether or not what you notice is important or not. Of course it is, even if you can’t say precisely what it is you’ve noticed. (151)
  46. Don’t expect to find an answer. Expect to find some possibilities. (162)
  47. Descriptions of physical action require incredible care because we read them with our bodies as well as our brains.  (185)
  48. Part of the struggle in learning to write is learning to ignore what isn’t useful to you and pay attention to what is. (Prologue)

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