Learning to Write

By Matthew Cheney

1. I have been reading The Journals of Jules Renard in the translation by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget, recently reissued by Tin House Books as an elegant paperback. I was only barely familiar with Renard when the book arrived; I knew I had his Natural Histories on a shelf somewhere, but I'd hardly read any of it. I'm fond of writers' journals, though, and this one had been praised, supposedly, by Donald Barthelme and Susan Sontag. Tin House even scored a blurb from Jean-Paul Sartre, who said (presumably in French): "Directly, or indirectly, Renard is at the origin of contemporary literature."

2. At first, I read around, I skim and skip. From page 183:

Nature is never ugly. How well the trees breathe!

The somber green of a wood when a cloud passes over it.

Mown meadows, still green; grazed meadows, already yellow.

As I was reading poetry, a quail called. Ah, poor peasants who do not know such emotions, you deserve all human pity!

The water quivers: it looks like a lake of silver leaves.

These sentences don't move me. They don't please me. There is something off about them, something twanging in my ears, the tone of an arrogant man trying to pass himself off as humble or simple. Perhaps I am in the wrong mood. (My mood is often wrong these days for reading.) (Perhaps I am the arrogant man.)

And then I am entranced by the next entry:

Patina of time on the roofs. You no longer see the tiles, but a curtain of white and yellow moss, soft to the eye.

"If I had written words as perfect as those," I say to myself, I could die content.

3. The desire to write perfect sentences is one that comes up repeatedly in Renard's journals. The very first entry, from 1887, is this: "The heavy sentence—as though weighted with electric fluids—of Baudelaire." Renard was twenty-three, a few years away from success as a writer. In 1901 he challenged himself: "To load my sentence well, aim well, and score a bull's eye." In 1908, two years before his death, he wrote: "Words: the pieces of change in the currency of a sentence. They must not get in the way. There is always too much small change."

He began his journal as a way to teach himself to write better. The third entry:

Talent is a question of quantity. Talent does not write one page: it writes three hundred. No novel exists which an ordinary intelligence could not conceive; there is no sentence, no matter how lovely, that a beginner could not construct. What remains is to pick up the pen, to rule the paper, patiently to fill it up.

This idea stuck with him, it seems, though experience tempered his idealism, leading him to note in November of 1900: "Writing. The most difficult part is to take hold of the pen, dip it in the ink, and hold it firm over the paper." A month later: "Every moment my pen drops because I tell myself: 'What I am writing here is not true.'" Only a few months before, he had written: "The task of the writer is to learn how to write."

In 1908, Renard comforted himself:

To write, constantly to write! But nature does not constantly produce. She gives flowers and fruit in her season, and then she rests for at least six months. Which is about my measure.

4. I frequently quote Gertrude Stein's How to Write: "A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is."

What good, then, are perfect sentences? Can they live outside their paragraphs, or do they wither and shrivel and mummify when left on their own?

In How to Write, Gertrude Stein also wrote:

What is it. It is a sentence. A sentence is that they say that they will he will come right away. A sentence can be in one. It has been one.

5. There was a day a few months ago when I confused Jules Renard with Jacques Roubaud. The Journals arrived in my mailbox and I thought I already had a few books by Renard. But those books were by Roubaud.

Take out the middles and they are the same person in name. They are not the same person, either in body or name, and this once again proves that middles are important.

On the day that I confused Jules Renard with Jacques Roubaud, I had not, up to that point, read much of either writer. I have now read Roubaud's Some Thing Black, a book of prose and poetry.

Here is an emotional sentence by Jacques Roubaud: "This morning it's unthinkable to go out into the sun."

Before you read that sentence, I did not tell you that Some Thing Black is about Roubaud's immense grief at the death of his young wife. The sentence could have appeared in a science fiction novel. It would probably be less emotional there, because it would probably be about the difficulties some scientists faced in getting their experiment finished when the sun, for whatever reason, was not being hospitable. That is the least emotional scenario I can imagine for the sentence, and yet it still possesses a twinge of despair, a hint of disappointment, a suggestion of fear. It is not as emotional as it is in its original context, but nonetheless, it does not lack emotion.

Perhaps Gertrude Stein meant to say that her sentences are not emotional. On the whole, I would agree with that assessment—their diction and affect and repetition was not the sort to bring out strong feelings, unless those are strong feelings of annoyance and frustration, which are, indeed, emotions, but are exterior to the sentence (and, in any case, are more likely to be caused by paragraphs and pages of such sentences, proving, once again, Stein's dictum). But I have long loved one particular sentence of Stein's, one that comes from a tremendously emotional paragraph in her vast book The Making of Americans:

She had thrown the umbrella in the mud and no one heard her as it burst from her, "I have throwed the umbrella in the mud," it was the end of all that to her.

The beginning of the sentence gives us a petulant child, but the end of the sentence, that final clause, evokes wistfulness and sadness for me, the sadness of childish things that somehow point to the less pure, more ragged disappointments of adulthood. I discovered the sentence quoted in Stein's lecture "Plays," and the extraordinary entire paragraph sits patiently on page 388 of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of The Making of Americans.

Dalkey Archive Press also published Roubaud's Some Thing Black. It is a harrowing book. Here is a paragraph from page 52:

The phone will ring. The voice which the man who is alone because of a death will hear is not that of the woman he loves. It's some other voice, any voice. He will hear it. This does not prove he is alive.

6. The edition of The Oxford American Dictionary that inhabits my computer defines the noun "harrow":

an implement consisting of a heavy frame set with teeth or tines that is dragged over plowed land to break up clods, remove weeds, and cover seed.

Let me make an irresponsibly general statement: All great sentences are harrowing.

All great sentences break up clods, remove weeds, cover seed.

The metaphor is imprecise, and yet it pleases me. Jules Renard turned again and again to rural life for his metaphors ("Unperturbed as an ox who could not be sold at the fair"). Sometimes his journal entries possess the spirit of haiku: "Rain mixed with piano drops," "An autumn butterfly, forgetting itself, lives on," "Snow on water: silence upon silence."

Renard's Natural Histories, a book I forgot I owned, a book I once gave away and that came back to me, offers similar pleasures. Perhaps I could not read it earlier because I was moving to cities and living in cities. Now I am living just up the road from a farm, in a house that gets visited by deer and bear and moose, my contentment with this world allows me to be susceptible to Renard's magic.

Natural Histories is subtitled "a bestiary," and it does, indeed, contain a bunch of beasts—all sorts of birds, mammals, insects—but what amazed me when I read it was the freedom of its form. At first, the book seems like a collection of short tales about animals, some of them funny, some of them strange, like parables or fragments of folktales.

And then we get to "The Cockroach," and there is only one sentence: "Black and flattened like a keyhole."

A few pages later, the story of "The Magpie" is followed by some chatter:

The Magpie: "Cacacacacacaca."
The Frog: "What is she saying?"
The Magpie:"I'm not saying, I'm singing."
The Frog: "Croak!"
The Mole: "Quiet up there, we can't hear ourselves work!"

In "The Pigeons," we learn things we didn't know: "They persist in believing that babies are made through the beak." A page later, in "Bats," we encounter poetry:

Night wears itself out through use.

It does not wear out from the top, through its stars. It wears out like a dress dragging on the ground, among stones and trees, down in the depths of the unwholesome tunnels and damp caves.

There isn't a corner into which a fragment of night does not penetrate. Thorns pierce it, cold cracks it, mud mars it. And every morning, when night lifts, tatters of it remain caught here and there.

That is how bats are born.

And so on, and so on, until finally we come to "The Hawk" and a tragic end:

He has caught sight of me lying in wait for him at my door and holding behind my back something long and shining.

7. It is perhaps absurd for me even to attribute the greatness of the sentences I love to authors such as Renard and Roubaud, because I did not read their sentences. I read the English versions of their sentences made by Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Roget, and Rosmarie Waldrop.

8. Out the window, a vast blue sky. Only a few clouds. They drift above the trees across the driveway.

The somber green of a wood when a cloud passes over it.

That sentence pleases me now. There is no twang to it, no arrogance. My mood has changed. I have scrubbed more of the city out of my ears. The ache of lost words, of pages not written, of stories not told and dreams not recorded . . . fades . . .

The task of the writer is to learn how to write.

Renard learned to write through observation, through frustration, through the constant struggle to lift the pen, to keep going, to pull the harrow.

. . . it was the end of all that to her.

Roubaud wrote from inexpressible emotion. In a section of Some Thing Black called "Aphasia," he said (in Rosmarie Waldrop's words):

Faced with your death I remained stone silent.

I could not speak for nearly thirty months.

I could no longer speak in my way of speaking, I mean poetry.

I had begun to speak, in poems, twenty-two years before.

After another death.

Silence penetrates the text itself, inserting white spaces between the fragments and bits of sentences. Punctuation takes a fall. The margins of the page become margins of life. The effect of emotion on emotionless text.

Learning how to speak again.

Learning how to write.

One of the final entries in Renard's Journal:

Besides, I'm through. I could begin all over again and do it better, but no one would notice the difference.

Better make an end.

After that entry, one more page.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including One Story, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and the anthologies Logorrhea and Interfictions. He is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books, and he writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Read more of his columns in our archives.