On Writing: Paragraphs as Holograms
The great Gertrude Stein wrote something that has stayed with me for years: paragraphs are emotional, sentences are not. The hardest thing in the world is to write a good paragraph, but if you write and your writing runs as true and as deep as you’re feeling when it’s running truest and deepest, you’ll do anything––anything in your power, short of performing an act of ritual seppuku, to produce that paragraph. Every writer knows how easy it is to string out a bunch of sentences, but never end up with a paragraph that carries any emotional weight.
A good paragraph is comprised of body parts: eyes that see beyond the obvious, ears that catch every whisper in a crowd. Good paragraphs have legs because they move the narrative forward, or back in time. Nabokov, Pynchon, Coetzee, Bolano, Pamuk, Borges, Marquez, W.G. Sebald — the great masters of fiction (at least from my perspective) somehow make each paragraph a microcosm of the entire work, so that it can’t be detached from the paragraphs in a story that either come before or after. You can’t have, in other words, any standalone ‘graphs; you can’t pull them out of a fictional work and understand them by themselves. They’re ultimately part of the whole, a collection of gnarly holograms.
Time heals all paragraphs, in my experience, if you’ve got the patience and moxie to stick with it. There’s one paragraph from my novel GROK that took two years to write; I don’t know why but it did. These things just happen. I can say two years because I lived with that paragraph, the teeth of its punctuation, the sorrow of its nouns, the silliness of its adjectives––all of that, day in and day out, until I was finally able, with a big sigh of relief, to let go of it. I shudder now to read it again (no writer ever wants to go back and re-read his or her work, unless one is [a] a glutton for punishment, [b] wearing proper body armor with reinforced Kevlar)..
But I thought I’d put it out there, anyway: a hologram of the work as a whole, its droopy eyes and lonely ears. See what you think. The paragraph in question comes from page 61, at the beginning of a long chapter of GROK set in Paris in the nineteen-twenties and written in the style of that period.
She arrived by train at twilight, entering the city from the Gare du Nord. It was just as she had imagined it would be. A whistle blew. The clock at the station struck precisely 18:00 hours, and the train, a half hour late, suddenly lunged forward, then recoiled, before screeching to a halt on the iron tracks. When it recoiled a second time, she nearly fell into the arms of the suave young Frenchman whose compartment she had shared on the journey. He grabbed for her, missed, and grabbed again before falling into the lap of an old fat lady, who had also shared their compartment. The train finally came to a complete stop with the Frenchman’s head buried neatly in the fat lady’s big, sagging breasts.