The Best Sentence I Read This Week

If there is any advice I could give, it’s probably just what worked for me: Live in the woods, and write with a dog by your side.
— Lee Clay Johnson

I try to steer clear of labels where writing's concerned. For example, we really don't need to decide whether a writer who works in multiple genres should be called a memoirist or a novelist, nor do we need to have unanimous agreement in prose poetry-or-flash fiction debates. But sometimes I like playing with these sorts of distinctions, pretending they exist because they help me think through some aspect of my aesthetic or the work of others. Here's one such false distinction: There are two types of writers in the world--writers who take simple ideas/emotions and render them with incredible complexity, and writers who take complicated ideas/emotions and render them with deceptive simplicity. I plant myself firmly in the latter camp (partially by choice, partially by nature) and found myself reaching peak impatience with the former camp as I progressed through my MFA program, exposed far too often to academic writing that seems almost always purposefully and excessively Intellectual And Difficult.

The best sentence I read this week is from Lee Clay Johnson's recent Lithub essay, "How to Write Deep in the Woods with a Dog By Your Side." The thesis of the essay is summarized fairly well in the sentence I've plucked, though it doesn't do justice to Johnson's narrative of living with Li'l Sid in rural Virginia. Regardless, I like the sentence because I find it simple and humble and true. 

Over the past few years, I've turned down a number of invitations to join friends in weekly writing groups, in person and online, and I never stop feeling like an asshole for doing it. Sorry, I have to say, but the only way I can write is by waking up, making coffee and locking myself in my office, alone. I could take a morning off, join you in a noisy coffee shop and glance at my computer a few times over the course of several scattered conversations, but then I'd have to make up that hour later in the evening. 

I'm not good at writing in public places--I'm too easily distracted by other people, too self conscious of the ridiculous expressions I make while mentally proposing and denying awful metaphors, pounding out a rhythm on the table to match the music in my earbuds. My dog's usually downstairs when I write, and I definitely don't live in the woods, but Johnson's sentiment still rings true to me: I work best walled away from the world during the morning hours, stepping out of my confinement in the afternoon. For a brief few months before moving to South Carolina for graduate school, I was writing all morning and part of the afternoon in my Saginaw, MI apartment, then working part-time as a sports journalist later in the day. Short stories in the morning, minor league baseball in the evening: the lifestyle's not sustainable, at least not part-time, but if there's a more perfect writing schedule for me, I haven't found it yet.

Essays like these, the "how I found a way to write after my MFA" essays, might seem silly, but really they're not. Half of writing, I think, is learning how to write. I don't mean learning how to build a character, how to structure a plot, but how and when to get your ass in a chair, how (and how much) to clear your mind, how to know what subject or genre best deserves your attention, what style and aesthetic best suit your interests and skills. Some writers learn this just fine without the help of an graduate writing program or writer's group. Others learn this during their time in a program, a writerly coming-of-age made possible, in part, because of the financial and creative opportunities an MFA program can offer. For other writers, aspects of that routine change when their program ends, and then they must reinvent themselves again. I started to find my ideal physical and mental routine in the months leading up to my first semester, and I started to get a handle on the type of stories I wanted to tell some time during my second year. Whether my actual schedule changes drastically in the years to come will of course depend on employment--few writers actually get to keep their dream writing schedule, but once you've found the ideal, that base will help you adapt.

Johnson is giving us writing advice, but it doesn't feel like writing advice; he's just tell us what worked for him. Hot-take bloggers, take note! This is how it's done. 

I taught my first creative writing course to undergraduates last semester, and my evaluations, while mostly positive and fair, featured a common complaint: my students wanted more rules, more concrete and definitive instructions for writing poetry and prose. Well, tough. I don't believe in hard rules for writing, especially not for young writers, for whom rules are rarely helpful and often stifling. I don't use don't lists; if a student writes a story narrated by a dog in a bar that ends with him waking up from a dream, we talk in workshop about why it does or doesn't work, what "rules" the author is breaking, and how he or she is playing into common tropes. I lectured on elements of craft, for sure, but we tackled many of those creative writing rules or don'ts situationally.

I don't want to be responsible for telling writers what to do; I only considered it my responsibility to tell students what I've done, what has worked for others, and what their many possibilities may be. Perhaps it's my aversion to taking orders, but the only writing advice I'm really interested in is the humble kind. The "well, if I have to" kind of advice. The "listen, what the hell do I know, but this is how I did it" kind of advice. The "if there's any advice I could give, it's probably what worked for me" kind of advice. When it's not forced on me, when it's not presented with smug certainty or didactic pronouncement, I can carefully weigh it against my own thoughts and processes, decide whether it's helpful for me, whether the advice giver has offered anything I'd like to steal.

So, here's some of my own advice: Try to write sentences that are simple and true, and let one bleed into another until they pool into a story. Write with your door closed, revise with it open. Never feel pressured to share work before you're ready, but keep a loose definition of "ready." Read humbly, write with more confidence than you actually have, and take a break every half hour to pet your dog.

It's not perfect, but it works for me.

Some other dope sentences I read this week:

On a team with the Draymond Green providing the combustion, Klay Thompson the ancillary firepower, and Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes filling in the cracks, Stephen Curry is the deus ex machina, the ultimate mistake eraser.
— James Holas, "Westbrook And Curry, Polar Opposites Of Greatness" (BballBreakdown)
Old buildings in Japan are seldom really old. A country that builds with wood instead of stone runs the constant risk of losing its monuments to fire.
— Brian Phillips, "Sea of Crises" (Grantland)
‘I got some Lucky Charms, so I got some lucky charms,’ Thomas told me, laughing at the ridiculousness of a sentence a grown human would only say before the NBA’s draft lottery.
— Zach Lowe, "The Gravity and the Absurdity of the NBA Draft Lottery" (
Sometimes, I cried because the bride and the groom were so fresh and lovely, and when I saw them trembling with emotion, I was reminded of all the obstacles they faced and wanted more than anything for life to be sweet to them.
— Jane Bernstein, "The Marrying Kind" (Creative Nonfiction)
Singing is touching, you bang the air and the air moves something inside you and the thing moved registers, says, That is a sound.
— Alexander Chee, EDINBURGH




The Best Sentence I Read This Week: A Prologue

Next week, I'm starting a blog. Well, technically I guess I'm starting it today, but this first post is only to announce that next week will be my first real post. And it'll go like this:

I read lots of sentences on a weekly basis: short story sentences, creative nonfiction sentences, novel sentences, sportswriting sentences, longform feature sentences, hot-take sentences, blog post sentences, and on and on. Every Sunday, I'm going to post the best sentence I read that week. Then I'm going to write a little bit about what makes it dope.

Kind of like this thing that Ploughshares does, except instead of Ploughshares, it's just me, and instead of short stories, it's just sentences. Little baby sentences.

Two questions, two answers:

1. Why sentences?

Because they punch harder than paragraphs. Because I spend most of my time trying to craft one good sentence, then another one after that, and when I come across a really great sentence, rhythmic and moody and true, it literally makes me giddy. And because it's not so intimidating to write about just one sentence at a time. I mean, it's just one little sentence--how could it possibly hurt me?

2. What's this thing gonna be?

Remember that grammar class you took junior year, where you had to diagram all those sentences? Subject / verb / object & the gang? It won't be anything like that.

It'll be part appreciation, part criticism, part craft talk. It'll be part diary. It'll be part whining-about-writing. It'll be part sportstalk, part reading log, part Internet Writing. It'll be part blog. I mean, I don't know. What's a blog?


See you next Sunday.