“Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
– Jane Hischfield
Ever write a sentence without knowing how it will end? Without even knowing what you “mean” to say?
I find so often when I’m writing I’m cuffed by pretense and obligation. I know where everything’s got to end up, what it must resolve to; it’s just a matter of getting from A to B to Z.
So lately I’ve been trying to break free, letting a sentence
go take me where it wants. When it wants, how it wants. When that happens, something opens, something comes alive.
That’s what Hemingway, Poe, Falkner and Mary Shelley did.
Hemingway’s words became wild journeys — not just for readers but for the writer himself, who’s caught a tiger by the tail. It’s what makes writing an act of adventure.
Here’s the start of the longest sentence Hemingway ever wrote, from Green Hills of Africa: “That something I cannot yet define completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly….”
And here’s how it ends, not with a stop but a stream: “…float with no significance against one single, lasting thing—the stream.”
Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gelhorn, said: “He was a genius, that uneasy word, not so much in what he wrote as in how he wrote; he liberated our written language.”
Why write without aim? I like how poet Jane Hirshfield argues it enables “you flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, music, you didn’t know was in you, or in the world. You write to invite that, to make of yourself a gathering of the unexpected and, with luck, of the unexpectable.”
“We live so often in a damped-down condition,” as Hirschfield puts it. “The sequesters are social—convention, politeness—and personal: timidity, self-fear or self-blindness, fatigue.”
One exercise I’ve been messing with to help me bust out of my own head — or at least make fun of my own patterns — is autofill on my smartphone. Every time I type an email, my phone guesses at the next word I’ll use, based on the time I’ve had with this phone. Here, I’ll write a sentence without typing a single word…
Before I even touch the screen, my phone offers me 3 words with which to start the sentence: “Emily” (my assistant), “I” (that’s me), and “The.” I choose “The” and am greeted by 3 next words to choose from: “truth,” “research,” and “wall.” Fun words! This is like a choose-your-own-adventure game.
Here’s the full sentence result of me choosing from the words I’m offered, without thinking much about it as I go:
“The truth is that you can explain the situation to him, but only if you aren’t going to be honest with your own face.”
“Honest with your own face?” Wtf is that? I don’t know, but I want to know, so I will keep on writing to find out.