A life sentence

Verlyn Klinkenborg on the “genre of the sentence.”

One by one, each sentence takes the stage.

It says the very thing it comes into existence to say.

Then it leaves the stage.

It doesn’t help the next one up or the previous one


It doesn’t wave to its friends in the audience

Or pause to be acknowledged or applauded.

It doesn’t talk about what it’s saying.

It simply says its piece and leaves the stage.

Several Short Sentences About Writing

The Sentence Man: Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. Variation in the length and structure of sentences creates music.

Six years ago, in August 2006, during a writers’ gathering at Goucher College, Baltimore, I was dispatched to fetch Verlyn Klinkenborg from his hotel. He was silent, riding in my van. Then on campus he took the stage and began speaking on “The Genre of the Sentence.” No deferential joke or aw shucks warmup. He stared into the dim auditorium and lobbed oracular commandments: “Don’t believe what others believe”; “Look for gaps between sentences, paragraphs.”

He disdained sentence fragments, semicolons, and transitions. Oh, and workshopping. Was it my imagination that the hall’s temperature dropped ten degrees? He resembled a dyspeptic owl. Across the top row of seats, perched like crows, the teachers glared down at him. In between them and him, the students, fresh from their workshops, perked up. What’s with this guy?

“I had been thinking about writing about nonfiction,” he said. “I have written several hundred short sentences about writing, now a book. I’m very pragmatic. How do you get the work done, make the sentences? What do you think about when you make sentences?”

I might have read Making Hay by then. I hadn’t yet gotten to two of his later books, now among my favorite works, his collection of New York Times columns The Rural Life and his novel Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile. The latter is written from the point of view of a turtle owned by Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century British naturalist and minister. White had such a captive tortoise, an object of his study and speculation. Timothy is a feat of research (Klinkenborg studied White’s journals), imagination, and prose style.

The precepts Klinkenborg aired that form the core of his new book:

• “Writing is thinking. It is hard. You must learn to think yourself. Go think.  The more you do, you can remember what you thought about. Writers fail as writers because they fail to think. The literature that’s great is a product of thought and choices.”

• “Notice what interests you. Most people have no idea. Care about what you care about. Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization. Authority is ultimately something the reader holds. But vital.”

• “The sentence is the basis of your art. Think, make sentences, and revise. Rhythm is everything, first and last. Talking is natural, writing is not. It takes years of work. ‘Flow’ is not real and leads to loss of confidence. It is hard work and does not flow. Write short sentences. Let each sentence carry a small quantity of information. See Orwell: Write so clearly you can see what you have not said.”

• “You need a technical knowledge of grammar and syntax. Your writing is your responsibility. You are your first and only editor. You are responsible for etymology. You will need to look up nearly every word for a while. Proofread a piece with a paper under each line. Have someone read your piece to you.”

• “Chronology is a trap. It’s not natural; our own interior world is not chronological. Always resist chronology. Narrative is very hard. Very rare, even in novels. Be the narrator. Endings are not hard. Readers—all people—are used to endings.”

• “Writing is to offer your testimony on the nature of existence. It’s a moral act. Cleverness is its own punishment. Your job is to testify.”

I’ve returned to these notes and others I took that day. Some of his statements mystify—“The architecture of neutral space is larger for a whole book”; or, actually, “Don’t believe what others believe”—but mostly I find his notions inspiring or at least bracing.

Klinkenborg writes and offers rules of thumb in the vast “plain” writing tradition named by Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction (reviewed): prose like a pane of glass to see the world clearly; the writer submissive to the world and his subject. Plain writing has carried the day for now. “Fine” writers, more rhetorical, draw attention to themselves. A recent virtuoso fine performance—dare I say clever?—is [sic]: A Memoir, by Joshua Cody. Most people work in the middle, observes Dillard.

Not Verlyn Klinkenborg. Not so much. Like Dillard he’s a plain stylist working the edge of the continuum.

Like everyone, he universalizes what works for him. He’s polished his crotchets into smooth hard pebbles. Unlike everyone, he’s a thinker, a noticer, and a maker of  successful sentences.

Sometimes, not often enough, I ask myself, WWVD?

Next: Klinkenborg’s spare declarative chops.


Filed under craft, technique, Dillard—Saint Annie, editing, narrative, syntax, working method

17 responses to “A life sentence

  1. Hi, Richard. I guess I’m not surprised that Klinkenborg advises using ellipses in punctuation: his thought itself seems elliptical! I mean, I don’t think I really “get” him the way you do (and I think he may be one of those very special people who can only inspire people who’re on his wave length, rather than a creator of a more standard “made-for-the-crowd” sort of inspiration that I might find useful). I can’t help feeling when I read some of his edicts which you quote that there’s somehow a transitional thought (which you say he also declines) left out, as if maybe his sentences are too short for me. Of course, I’m used to Henry James’s “let’s go into every angle of every aspect of every stray hare of an idea that this hunter’s flusher flushes out from the underbrush of thought” stuff. I don’t know if Klinkenborg and I would have hit it off at all. Still, I may give him a read. Which of his books do you think is best for the beginner at his oracular statements?

    • I love The Rural Life, his book about rural America, and Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, his novel, both to be discussed in the next post. I have long meant to read his narrative about a restaurant, The Last Fine Time.

      His new book on writing really came at a great time for me, as I was giving my memoir its third reworking this summer. Timing on that book may be key, as it is really a long poem, very readable but maybe not memorable unless it is immediately applicable—that is, unless you need it. I plan to reread it now and then; very distilled thought and most original.

  2. I loved this post, Richard–the description of Klinkenborg as ‘a dyspeptic owl’, and your wonderful notes on his lecture. Consider revising your last sentence to read, “Sometimes, not often enough, I ask myself…”? I misread the first part of the sentence to mean that his philosophy was not enough to save his writing. Even though you just said, in the previous paragraph, that he’s an accomplished writer, ‘accomplished’ isn’t the highest praise. Maybe this was sloppy reading, on my part, but I was waiting to see whether Klinkenborg’s provocative ideas, in your view, produced brilliance in his published work. I look forward to your next post about him.

    • Thanks, Marisha—edit made!

      Maybe I need a better word than accomplished, maybe successful? Because that is undeniable. Though he’s on the enduring literature end of the shelf rather than the mega-bestseller end. I really like his work but know it’s not for everybody. His sentences are great, too, but I hit the occasional one that I think doesn’t work as well as it might. So even for me he’s not perfect, but really close, as a stylist.

  3. I love what you do with this blog. So supremely substantial. Have read much of V.K. Admire his ambitions, wasn’t sure Timothy worked completely (it seemed, halfway through, to get stuck within itself).

    • I’ve read it a couple times, but rather uncritically. As a novel, does suffer after a while from lack of narrative tension, or that’s the way I thought of it. And there’s no love story in turtledom, not for Timothy anyway! The sentences and words and the novel’s animating ideas just slay me, though.

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  5. There’s also this gem from that 2006 residency: “Walk into a bookstore: Look at all that shit.”

  6. Hip hip hooray for “plain” writing! I’ve often fretted that my work isn’t “literary” enough. Perhaps this stems from my journalism background–plain writing is cherished. I don’t follow Klinkenborg’s advice–I’m a fan of em dashes (can you tell?), commas, semicolons, etc. But I intend to read his book soon. I hadn’t heard of his other work. TIMOTHY sounds creative and intriguing.

    Klinkenborg should give you a cut of his recent sales! I think you’re pointing many people his way 🙂

    • Rachael, you’d love his book. And, look, he makes his living as a journalist. He’s one of the Times’s designated “writers,” but a journalist by definition. Increasingly I define journalism as the best of what’s in the Times or by what the New Yorker does. Why confine journalism or our aspirations in nonfiction to what a timid and illiterate newspaper might do?

  7. Richard Moore

    Re the tsunami of . . . “here’s how you do it, it ain’t easy”. . . writer’s guides . . . like the books and the lecture of Klinkenborg’s you report so well . . . .I have my doubts about just how useful this prescriptive approach is. For every “sentences, one-by-one are everything,” eager-to-learn writers will find dozens of “this is everything” by others who seek to pass along their success. I do suspect that from-the-mountain pronouncements stimulate the writer to think again about his/her work. That’s useful, of course. But, unless I took it out of context, I couldn’t disagree more with K that endings . . . sort of take care of themselves. That just doesn’t compute for me . . . . More with others? I confess that, like all others who aspire to write in the literary mode, I have a shelf full of “how to write” advisories. And have to admit that I have benefited from some. Far more, though, I have found my mentors and examples in great writing: Hemingway and Tobias Wolff come to mind.

    Thanks, once again, Richard for a thoughtful and upbeat post.

  8. Wow, what pithy stuff. I love “Being a writer is a perpetual act of self-authorization” and “Rhythm is everything, first and last.” I agree with Marisha (and others) — I loved this post and I too follow you with great reward and regard.

  9. Pingback: Questions for Verlyn Klinkenborg? | The Blog of Brendan O'Meara