Through the Door Into the Writing Room

coverportrait

What a treat! We just spent the past weekend reading through the latest book from one of the Land Library’s all-time favorite authors! Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing draws on his years of being a writer, and being a teacher of writing. His prose is simple, concise, and crystal clear. He also makes you look at reading and writing in fresh new ways: “There’s no gospel here, no orthodoxy, no dogma. Part of the struggle in learning to write is learning to ignore what isn’t useful to you and pay attention to what is. If that means arguing with me as you read this book, so be it.

Richard Ford has described Verlyn Klinkenborg’s new book as “Modest. Learned. Good-natured. Direct and sympathetic to its readers. You don’t even have to read it from front to back….You can just open it anywhere — as I did — and take away something useful.” Ford is so right about the inherent good-nature of this book. It’s very enjoyable to read. But it’s also hard to pick just one passage to share. Here’s our pick:

“In school, we’re taught — or we absorb the idea — that
writing
Flows out of the creative writer like lava down the
slope of a volcano.
An uninterruptible stream.
And yet we study the work itself as if its molten fire
had hardened into rock.

But the work isn’t an eruption from the author’s brain,
It doesn’t merely flow.
And it remains more dynamic, as written — on the
page — than we let ourselves imagine.

We forget something fundamental as we read:
Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t.
We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape
of the sentence.
But we can see the residue of those decisions.

If you look at the manuscripts of writers —
Handwritten drafts preserved in museums and
libraries —
You can often see the changes they made scribbled
between the lines.
What you can’t see are the changes they made in their
heads before those sentences were ever inscribed.

If you could look through the spaces between the
sentences,
Through the door into the writing room, into that
writer’s head,
You’d see that every word was different once
And that the writer was contemplating
An incalculable number of differences,
Feeling her way among the alternatives that presented
themselves,
Until settling upon words that were finally written
down,
Then revised over and over again —
Before they were printed, published, reprinted in
anthologies,
And treated as though they were carved in stone.

It was all change until the very last second.

Every work of literature is the result of thousands and
thousands of decisions.
Intricate, minute decisions — this word or that, here or
where, now of later, again and again.
It’s the living tissue of a writer’s choices,
Not the fossil record of an ancient, inspired race.
Interrogate those choices.

Imagine the reason behind each sentence.
Why is it shaped just this way and not some other
way?
Why that choice of words?
Why that phrasing?
Why that rhythm?”

And here’s a few other favorites from the Land Library’s shelves:

rural lifemaking hay
The Rural Life, drawn from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s column in The New York Times, and Making Hay, an earlier book that beautifully describes the everyday life of farms in the upper midwest, and Montana.

timothyselborne

Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile — a novel told through the words of a real-life tortoise made famous in Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne (1789) The Land Library Book Club read this book a few years back, and we still refer back to it. In fact, it will no doubt be the first book we read and discuss a second time!

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One thought on “Through the Door Into the Writing Room

  1. A welcome and undoubtedly refreshing return to literate writing. In this age of twits, misspelled TV captions and “stream of consciousness” verbal disgorge signifying little we need to be reminded that the craft of writing–like any craft worth having–requires effort.

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