Something happens when I read sentences that call out to me. I mean something physical, something in my stomach, a quick exhale of recognition and admiration all at once. They make me look up from the page, these handfuls of words that stop time. As Jhumpa Lahiri puts it in a recent op-ed, I am reacting to “their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions.”
Yup. What she said.
I underline sentences a lot. And I steal lines. By steal I mean copy – I record (in pen and lowercase letters) those precious sentences down in my Moleskin or whatever notebook I have nearby. These words will serve as references, inspiration, and reminders days from now, months, years. My notebooks are my most valued possessions because they’re a collection of other writers’ thoughts and my own and when I look back at all of them (they live in a chest underneath my desk) I think, “There is no way I could remember all this if it were lost.” After unpacking my summer storage unit before I moved into an apartment my second year of college, there was one important box missing – those journals. Standing in a hurricane of my new room, I panicked, knowing the storage unit across town was empty and that the box must have gotten lost in transit. I am not ashamed to admit that I curled up on the bathroom floor that night and sobbed, feeling like I had lost a part of myself. Somewhat dramatic, in hindsight, but it was in that moment I realized how important my collection of writings were to me. (The story ends with my new roommates taking me back the following morning to the unit, which, upon opening, held a lone dusty box with all my notebooks.)
It is, in fact, one of Lahiri’s sentences itself in her article that makes me pause, get up, grab scissors, and carefully cut out her piece because I want to save the whole thing in the flesh – it’s too good to merely be retained in my Moleskin. She writes, “The urge to convert experience into a group of words that are in a grammatical relation to one another is the most basic, ongoing impulse of my life.” Both rudimentary and sexy, that sentence encapsulates how I’m sure many of us students of writing feel – that urge, need, question, impulse is how we answer people when they ask us what we’re passionate about, what we study, what we stay in to do on Friday nights in college… and what we hope — here, we stand tall, shoulders back — to somehow make a living doing forever. I fear that quality writing is becoming increasingly less valued these days. We read all the time, but what are we reading? How are we reading? What are we retaining, what words are we discussing, what books do we even hold in our hands anymore?
I digress. What I’m trying to say is that I fell in love with writing all over again today. I read a handful of great things this afternoon – an interview with David Sedaris in which he talks about the books on his nightstand; Jhumpa Lahiri’s opinion piece in the New York Times; a passage in a novel by Anthony Doerr in which he writes, “[the writer] hunts down the most vivid details and links them in sequences that will let a reader see, smell, and hear a world that seems complete in itself”; and a letter that the author Hope Edelman wrote to her younger self, just out of college, in which she urged herself to take risks, to take them now, and to stop being afraid.
Actually, I want to share a part of that, because it is so calling to me right now:
“The next few years are yours for the living. Because, let’s face it, you’re not going to up and go trekking through the Himalayas when you’ve got two kids and a teaching job and an unruly house that keeps breaking down. Start meditating and doing yoga soon; it’ll save you twenty years of anxiety. Sleep with a woman now, so you don’t have to wonder about it later. Try peyote with your roommates instead of always being the designated driver. Follow the Grateful Dead for a summer for no reason other than the music is pretty good and the people seem sort of interesting. Get a tattoo. Dye your hair, just because you feel like change. Whatever. In the end, your GPA and your resume aren’t going to matter. Raw talent and discipline will. Just get yourself to Iowa City by 1990 because that’s where everything starts clicking into place. The time between now and then is yours for the living.”
With that, it was the sentiment of the paragraph that had me reaching for my pen, rather than any particular sentence. At this stage of my life, in this moment, I completely and utterly understand exactly what Hope Edelman is saying. And that’s why I read – I crave those connections, the sentiments that orient me, the sentences that serve as my trail marks. Some people see magic in numbers, some in buildings, some in a pitcher’s perfect game. I see magic in words and in breathing, shifting sentences. That’s where it is for me. And that’s where it’ll always be, in some way or another.