The title itself could distract me, if it came before anything I was meant to write, and stopped me up before the first sentence had come. An idea had been there or maybe just a glance of one? All would vanish with the name.
In college, it had become the odd feeling of parsing through a sentence of my own. I had rare sentences of my own. It was too hard. I wanted my professors to like me. None of my sentences could have possibly caused anyone to like me. I copied out Wordsworth, stole the sentence structure, started the essay with the exhibitionist’s Latinate style of his ‘letters’. I can say that now because of all the sentences I’ve stolen. I can say, without pause, that since starting this Ten Minute Essay In Times Font, I have picked up several books to catch a phrase and parse a sentence, as if balancing on a wire and leaning my long balancing rod to one side to counter my accidental words.
How can we be expected to sing this song of ours so soon? It was 2005. I had an afternoon of comprehensive exams. We sat to take the exams in groups. Some of us had notes. We were allowed to have them. I had none. My syntax, after some awful starts, would come from the song of the sentence; not the meaning or aperture of an argument. How could anyone possibly write an essay in an afternoon? Well, it wasn’t an expectation it’d be brilliant, but the disgrace of being forced felt beyond an internal tension, a distraction; the expectation came down on the shoulders, the neck, and right into the belly, where the gastric juices of sitting and reading through the exam questions and ideas made the gastric juice of the first sentence a stinging and regurgitating remonstrance to the exposition and copious scribbling. Many essays, many sentences. Oh, there wasn’t a worthy sentence among them. The interruption, the Latinate interruption, the French flourish, the dignity of a comma to set off the interruption, asked some throat-clearing before the clause could end with a comma, then end the damn sentence.
I’d placed two of the greats in their opposite eras, I’d misinterpreted Levertov, I’d gone full-in on Wordsworth without notes, I’d been full-fisted beating up Hamlet as I finished out the day in a triplet on another combination-essay Levertov and Brecht. I could’ve killed to eat my finger, and I hadn’t even heard of Knut Hamsun at that point.
Sixteen years later, I’m still humbled by silence before an open, blank page. But my current act, my obsession, is fiction. Parsings riddle first drafts their lifts, phraseology, and emendations. Like this one from Edward St. Aubyn’s prosody, the first paragraph from chapter 5 of Mother’s Milk, a brilliant passage of character and of inhabitants, then made into Jenn’s approach to Peekering’s interrogation.
Walking down the long, daily-mopped corridor of her predecessor’s police station, the janitor’s radio mumbling out in miniature the last-of-day crime report at the end of the hall made Mike Peekering’s silence seem more guilty than it was. She passed the old, brimming evidence room where decades-old volumes of the potential held a different kind of silence. The stuffed, named and numbered boxes lined floor-to-ceiling shelving units of hundreds of Mike Peekerings. Why were so many unsolved in Blue Oxford? A name shouted out at her, the familiar brown box of that decade, the name she spied every time she passed, the boxes named Rossel. Jennifer had shelved that group, shifting the dozen or so with her shot-through shoulder pounding, keeping their numbers, their contents in her daily passing by of the evidence room, just in case, at the farthest reaches of horrid possibility, another one flowed long-dormant tributaries.
It had been Lee Ellis who, in a 2010 New Yorker article, helped define for me T.S. Eliot’s “mature poets steal”: “I interpret “steal” to mean, in this context, the act of taking from other texts themes, ideas, rhythms, structures, but not the sentences themselves.” The important word there, for me, has always been ‘structure’. Rhythms, though my own are still fledgling, are the natural cadences of your narrator, or character. From Aubyn, I found the ‘more hysterical than it was’ bit too alluring not to try on for Jenn. It’s a winding road of a sentence ending in a car crash for her. Jenn is full of car crashes.
Some days we all have our own good bad sentences, but on this day I was choked up, blank page before me, and couldn’t enter until I’d read. When I’d read that sentence, a departure point, in the least, a comfort for whom, voiceless at crucial moments in our novel writing, reading reveals and inspires, I could move on—then to return some months later to decimate, emend, improve, washout.
 Walking down the long, easily washed corridors of his grandmother’s nursing home, the squeak of the nurse’s rubber soles made his family’s silence seem more hysterical than it was. They passed the open door of a common room where a roaring television masked another kind of silence. The crumpled, paper-white residents sat in rows. What could be making death take so long? Some looked more frightened than bored, some more bored than frightened. Robert could still remember from his first visit the bright geometry decorating the walls. He remembered imagining the apex of a long yellow triangle stabbing him in the chest, and the sharp edge of that red semicircle slicing through his neck.