Luc Sante and Flaubert: Language, Meaning, and Process

There’s a great interview with Luc Sante up at Guernica magazine. The interviewer, Suzanne Menghraj, weaves in questions about music and rhythm and solicits this great quote from Sante:

Rhythm in writing is [...] a completely intuitive matter. I don’t really understand the process. It’s related to the substance of Flaubert’s famous letter to George Sand: “When I come upon a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I’m sure I’m floundering in the false. By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one, and which is also harmonious. The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Is there not, in this precise fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principal? If not, why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word? Or why should the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?” This is crucial stuff for me. I write intuitively, not knowing where I’m going, not knowing what the next sentence will be until this one has guided me there, and knowing how the sentence goes begins with my hearing its rhythm in my head, and then filling in the specific words. If the sentence is cloddish and clunky, it’s simply wrong—and not just wrong-sounding but wrong in its meaning.

I can’t think of a better reason for paying close attention to the construction and flow of every single sentence. Ugly sentences, the ones that don’t scan, the ones that the reader stumbles over? No less than a failure of meaning.

The instinct might be to fix the sentence: rewrite it till it flows. I’d suggest stopping and thinking and getting clarity on what it is you are trying to say before you do that. As Flaubert says: The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Find the idea and the words should, in theory, take care of themselves.

Ah yes, you say, but what if you don’t know what you want to say? What if the idea is elusive, impossible to pin down? Isn’t that one of the reasons why we write in the first place? To discover what it is that we feel and think?

To which I say: that’s what first drafts are for! Write it out in order to know it, to understand it (whatever “it” is here: story, idea, feeling). Then write it again, with this new knowledge having been dredged up and placed, to some degree, at the front of the mind. These two documents might have very little in common. The first enables the second, and the second isn’t so much a rewrite as a re-imagining.

That’s my thoughts on process for today folks, inspired by Flaubert, care of Luc Sante, care of Guernica magazine.

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5 Responses to Luc Sante and Flaubert: Language, Meaning, and Process

  1. Wonderful post! I think E.L. Doctorow said “Writing is an exploration. You start with nothing and learn as you go.” You’ve captured the writing process beautifully. Thanks for sharing. :)

  2. nancyrawlinson says:

    Thanks, Denise. I like that E. L. Doctorow quote too and I also love this story about him. A preview:

    “E.L. Doctorow began his writing career with a spectacular failure.”

    Apparently, in high school, Edgar was assigned to write a profile. He chose a doorman at Carnegie Hall. His teacher loved it. Wanted to publish it, with a picture, in the school paper — at which the future novelist confessed that he’d made the whole thing up. Nonfiction’s loss was fiction’s gain.

  3. anna rawlinson says:

    Great stuff Nancy. And there different kinds of rhythms. Someone edited out a part of a sentence in some of my writing recently and the edit felt wrong to me, and it was this question of rhythm – though me and the editor may have disagreed. I went with my version.

  4. nancyrawlinson says:

    Yes — you have to trust your own instincts above everything. If you don’t have that, you’re just flotsam on the opinions of others, and that’s no way to build a writing life.

  5. Alison Jarvis says:

    Slogging around this morning, trying for hours to write one line of a poem, I went for diversion and read your Luc Sante’ piece. Thank you for that! I have to be lead back to these writing
    touchstones over and over, I guess. They are always true and always fresh. And thanks too,Nancy for your wise comments.

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