Last week the subject of where we get our stories from came up in my writing class. It was after we finished reading aloud the results of an in-class writing assignment. The common refrain from most of my classmates was that they’re always looking for “that one true sentence”; that they can’t really get started on anything until they’ve written “that one true sentence.” Where does this come from? Hemingway:
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. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
Listening to my classmates repeat this idea in class really helped me understand where I generate my writing ideas from. Now, I’m not trying to sound contrarian here because I actually work off of a variant of this idea.
When I sit down to write, I gauge my mood and the assignment in front of me, and then I pick appropriate music. I use that music to inspire an image and action in my mind. Once I get those, I toy with the possibilities, and, if I like it, I write with that music in mind. This helps me maintain tone and momentum. It’s also why I’ll listen to the selected music (one track or an entire album) on repeat for days while I suss out the story. I never look for “that one true sentence” because editing happens, and that sentence may disappear from the work at any point. But seeking out “that one true image,” that stays in the piece and shapes what the whole thing “looks like.”
Starting off a story is a highly individual thing, and advice that works for one person won’t always work for another. So take this as a “this is the way I like to work” piece, but also take it as an invitation to share how you start your own works. Ahem. Canelli?