Anatomy of a Sentence

Dear Readers, a dilemma which faced the greatest American writer of the 20th century, a whole of universe of deliberation over a simple sentence.

 

Why don’t you help the author decide what’s best? What should a high-society, ill-starred lady tell the main character, narrator, an expat journalist living in 1920’s Paris: “I love you and I’ll love you always.” Romantic enough, surely. Dramatic, as in any good romance, be it modern or otherwise. One might say even timeless. Especially considering its nuances. This sentence, coming from a woman pathologically incapable of fidelity, who strings along men as if they were bulls and she a bright red cape, has an added sense of irony and poignancy.

 

But no, it didn’t make the cut.

 

So then began the dissecting by our famous author. He settles on a scene. He has the lady speak more in character, more pessimistic, more realistic, perhaps, “Oh Jake…we could have had such a damned good time together.” Implied in the sentence – a tip of the iceberg kind of sentence – is an admission of imperfection. The high-on-herself socialite confesses, in a moment of tender realism, that she is not designed for love, fidelity, merely something more fleeting and drunkenly. A love of life, perhaps, but nothing else. Sold.

 

But then, what is the narrator, the lovestruck but downtrodden protagonist to reply? What would you have him reply? Think about it for a minute. Done? Now, lets see if you were close. Lets see if you could match the mind of (remember?) the greates American writer of the 20th century.

“It’s nice as hell to think so.” Were you any close? Don’t worry, this was just the first draft of the sentence. But the sentiment was definitely right on the mark. It captures the Oh-sod-it kind of humour pervading the book. Love is futile, shallow, life is repetitive, we are our own worst enemy, etc etc…but to hell with it, drink deep and drown it all out. “It’s nice as hell to think so.” If that were written on Facebook chat you could imagine the author putting in a wink 😉 or perhaps a Lol.

 

The sentiment works, then. That’s a quarter of the battle won. Constructing the perfect sentence. The true craft of writing. Sentiments are easy enough to pin down, if you’re observant enough and are not self-centred then it is within your nature to pick up on emotions and thoughts, writer or no. Somehow, our dedicated author wasn’t happy with the effect of the sentence. And he wasn’t being artsy-fartsy flippant, here. This was a man who had been wounded in the First World War, decorated in the Second, was a deep-sea fisherman, a boxer, married three times: yet still the man declared that writing was the hardest thing he had ever done. This is a case in point.

 

How would you perfect it? How would I, I admit I am too arrogant to admit it would need changing. I’m a spontaneous writer, I place my trust in the virginal, pure sentence. But I’m learning to be otherwise. Learning, as all writers must, to be my own worst critic. Not even that: to imagine that history itself is judging me, what would it say? I would (yes, I’ll be brave enough to hazard a try) change it to something a bit more subtle and poignant, less aggressive, something like “dream on kid, aren’t we just wonderful at that.” Too philosophical perhaps. Something a bit more direct and down-to-earth: “Only you would think so.” That’s un-poetically mean. Enough, enough: let’s see what made the cut.

 

“Isn’t it nice to think so?” Well, not quite. That was the second draft. “Isn’t it nice to think so?”, its very you-and-me, quite grounded, something you’d hear couples say even today. Its journalistic, almost. But here comes the poetry of fiction writing: it doesn’t quite sound right. Nice is too mundane a word. It’s not emotional enough. It’s flat. How about, “Isn’t it wonderful to think so.” Too much, perhaps? Your take? Alright, to the last and certainly not least, the final, printed sentence: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

 

A perfectly balanced sentence, pretty sounds like a word a father would use to his sad daughter, and, aesthetically, it has a better flow than nice, it is almost an onomatopoeia: the word pretty actually sounds pretty. And that’s what made the final cut. That’s what was put into the legendary novel The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It must be perfect, right? This from a writer who had re-written the ending of one his novels (A Farewell To Arms) 39 times!

 

Is it perfect, though? Is there such a thing? Who decides? What do you think? Could you do a better job than Hemingway? If you think so, you’d better damn well have the stuff for it.

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