The Best Thing I Ever Read
A link to a story about the best sentences ever crossed my FB feed this morning. There are some good sentences there and they run the gamut from Hemmingway-esque pith to Dickensian clause-tastic and some are obviously there because of the sentiment they impart, others because they are simply monuments to what a craftsperson can do with the raw material of the language.
When I think about what has stuck with me as a reader, I can’t really zero in on the perfect sentence. I know which authors have left an impression on me because of their style, though. One of the single sentences that has stuck with me the longest, perhaps, is MFK Fisher’s opening line from The Gastronomical Me: “The first thing I cooked was pure poison.” This is a confession that the things we most love, are most committed to, are dangerous, perhaps even fatal, to those around us. Is this a Freudian suggestion that killing her mother–or her grandmother, who lived with them and terrorized their kitchen–was the goal of her taking over the stove? The cook who taught her how to do these things did just that, after all, and in quite bloody and dramatic fashion. Cooking is feeding and sustenance but it can be poison and death, as well.
I don’t have the book in front of me at the moment but I recall that several chapters in her memoir are titled something like “The Extent of my Powers,” which indicates that she might have revelled just a bit in the prospect of being able to kill off her family, metaphorically speaking anyway. She left them for France, betrayed home for love and adventure. Later, she left her husband for a different love and a different adventure. Did she have to push away from her family, “kill them,” in order to develop her powers (literary, culinary, passionate) to their full extent? For a woman of her generation and background, this seems a pretty safe conclusion to draw. (And draw it I did, and from one measly sentence. Thank you, graduate school.)
Fisher approached her typewriter much as she approached her stove: with a straightforward confidence in her skill and ability. Her skill at writing was surely just as hard won as her skill in cooking and it probably goes without saying that the first thing she wrote was probably total shit–pure poison–as well. That’s worth keeping in mind for anyone who sits down to write anything. Your first attempt out of the gate–your brilliant idea to decorate your plain custard prose with poisonous berries from the alley of your heart–is likely going to suck for both you and any unfortunate reader who comes along. Don’t let that stop you. Try it again, maybe without the berries, or maybe with a different reader. The fact that you want to be there writing and that you want to dish up something that at least someone will find nourishing or sustaining or interesting or funny or whatever means that you likely have enough commitment to the task to stay there and work on it and get it right.