We the Mice
by Jim B
For those of aspiring to be writers, there is a whole array of aspects we must learn. One of the most important, of course, is how to write a sentence. And then there is the anatomy of the story, including theme, conflict, and characterization. Additionally, there is prose rhythm—which is not even clearly defined anywhere. (Yet, it is a crucial aspect so we must work on it.) To learn this craft, we both must practice strategically and read strategically.
First and foremost, we must turn to the experts for advice. This, of course, includes the literary greats, as Hemingway explained in his 1935 Esquire article “Monologue to the Maestro”:
Mice: What books should a writer have to read?
YC: He should have read everything so he knows what he has to beat.
Here the mice (short for ‘maestro’) is the aspiring writer. Thus, we are the mice. Yet, your correspondent (YC) paradoxically acknowledges that we can NOT read everything, yet we should. He also provides us with a list of writers we ought to read, ranging from Leo Tolstoy to James Joyce to Henry James.
This list of works Hemingway mentions includes short stories (e.g., Joyce’s collection Dubliners). And short stories are indeed a great place for the writer to learn. The fact that so many great writers wrote short stories, coupled with the fact that they can each be read in a single sitting, facilitates such learning. As for reading the story in a single sitting, Edgar Allen Poe explained this in his essay The Philosophy of Composition, explaining ‘unity of effect’: “ If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.” Of course, we must not use this as an excuse to never reading lengthier works.)
Next sentences. What would writing be without the sentence? We as writers/mice need to master the sentence, which is a rigorous process. A great course to aid us is The Teaching Company Course Building Great Sentences with Brooks Landon. He teaches us how to lengthen our sentences effectively. And as all good writers know, sentence variation is key. Landon, in fact, goes through all the strategic ways to add to the kernel sentence “The woman shut the door…” This is where writing may not be at its most exciting, but it is necessary. I, for instance, practiced all these syntactical arrangements until they appeared automatically in my writing. Another great resource is the book The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife.
In conclusion, the craft of writing requires both practice and effective strategy. And, although this should go without saying, we must practice writing every day. Even if we must get up a couple hours earlier. Write. Write. Write. It is the only way. And, of course, we need to work on our weaknesses. It is human nature to avoid difficulty, yet we must go against our instincts on this one. If writing long sentences, for instance, is difficult for you—you know what you need to do.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Monologue to the Maestro.” Esquire.
Longknife, Ann. The Art of Styling Sentences.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Philosophy of Composition.”