Every sentence is a small victory

The 350-word essay is making a comeback. Admissions officers ask prospective college students to describe their last summers in 350 words; would-be lawyers or physicians sweat out the requisite six paragraphs that outline "Why I wnat to be a "; the business world demands that you either write, or have written about you, 350-word evaluations.

My father would, no doubt, be glad about this turn of events. He used to think of the fall semester as "the busy season," a time when his son, the English professor, could do a snappy business in comma splices and run-on sentences that needed a good tailor. He had a taste for metaphor, most of them drawn from his years as a clothing salesman. Unfortunately, he didn't live long enough to see his son do a rush-order business all year long.

But trying to explain that I think of writing as morem than spelling tricky words like "receive" correctly or knowing when to use a semicolon or why participles shouldn't dangle (valuable though these things are) is as frustrating now as my attempts to justify my summers of scholarly research were then. I remember my embarrassment when my father equated my first publication with clinching a sale. He was fiercely proud of my accomplishment -- an article on James Joyce, no less -- without feeling any need either to read or to understand what I'd written.

I kept trying to explain my summers squirreled away in the library nonetheless. And I was angered by failures to make clear to him what I did when I was a young man, and he was alive. Thought about deeply enough, my situation I suspect is hardly unique. Writing that matters begins in an effort to justify some passion others neither understand nor approve of.

In this sense, writing is unabashedly self-serving. It begins as a long, often painful process toward understanding, and if the writer is lucky, the discovery may touch, even convince, somebody else.

The great mistake is to imagine that this process is the monopoly of poets and novelists, that none of this struggle applies to the ordinary documents ordinary people write. Nothing could be further from the truth. All writing is a war between blank paper and the individual writer, whether the battle is for a job or a contract or an acceptance from the New Yorker.

Writing is simultaneously a justification and a means of achieving that justification. And somewhere, deep inside the network of prose, are the old, abiding concerns that make one person different from another and all of us, deeper down, the same. Professional writers are not the only people who need to discover, and justify, who they are; that particular requirement comes with the territory of being fully human in any field. That is why 350-word essays are not merely hot-house examinations in who can dot i's and cross t's correctly.

I'm still trying to explain, to myself as much as to my father's memory, why turning phrases and forming paragraphs looms as such an important human activity. Moreover, I'm peculiarly grateful to my father for forcing me, without his realizing it and certainly without my encouragement, to spend my life in an attempt at justification. Every sentence, written well and with honesty, is a small victory, a step closer to what I wasn't quite able to say in 350 words 15 years ago.

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