Inspirational Sentences
July 13, 2009 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to build a library of inspirational sentences.

In "How to Read Like a Writer", Francine Prose suggests collecting inspirational sentences, and collecting work by writers who have "obviously worked on their sentences". She recommends Stanley Elkin. More names that come to mind are Philip Roth and Alice Munro.

What would you choose for your library of inspirational sentences? What other writers would you recommend who have obviously worked on their sentences?
posted by shotgunbooty to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just so we're clear, you don't actually mean inspirational sentences (a la "You can do anything you put your mind to"), you mean well-written sentences?
posted by languagehat at 2:58 PM on July 13, 2009

Response by poster: Yes!
posted by shotgunbooty at 3:00 PM on July 13, 2009

(I like books about writing.) Prose, I think, is not suggesting that you collect sentences; the goal, rather, is to read more, and better, writing.
posted by box at 3:21 PM on July 13, 2009

Pretty much any sentence written by Gabriel García Márquez. Kurt Vonnegut too, I remember reading an interview of some sort with him, that I can no longer find, where he described writers who can put down line after line and then edit a whole work, and others who must pound away editing each phrase until a sentence is perfect, then move on to the next. He put himself in the later camp.
posted by Science! at 3:27 PM on July 13, 2009

Jane Jacobs - The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Theodore Zeldin - An Intimate History of Humanity

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Flow

Jacques Barzun's Simple & Direct has sections at the ends of chapters called "time out for good writing" -- full essays that were chosen purely as good prose.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:44 PM on July 13, 2009

John Milton's "Areopagitica" is, I think, among the finest pieces of English prose ever written, particularly in its use of long and complex sentences. For instance:
And thus ye have the inventors and the original of book-licensing ripped up and drawn as lineally as any pedigree. We have it not, that can be heard of, from any ancient state, or polity or church; nor by any statute left us by our ancestors elder or later; nor from the modern custom of any reformed city or church abroad, but from the most anti-christian council and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired. Till then books were ever as freely admitted into the world as any other birth; the issue of the brain was no more stifled than the issue of the womb: no envious Juno sat cross-legged over the nativity of any man's intellectual offspring; but if it proved a monster, who denies, but that it was justly burnt, or sunk into the sea? But that a book, in worse condition than a peccant soul, should be to stand before a jury ere it be born to the world, and undergo yet in darkness the judgment of Radamanth and his colleagues, ere it can pass the ferry backward into light, was never heard before, till that mysterious iniquity, provoked and troubled at the first entrance of Reformation, sought out new limbos and new hells wherein they might include our books also within the number of their damned.

Pretty much any sentence written by Gabriel García Márquez

I'm not sure translated work should really count--or if it does, the sentence should be attributed to the translator.
posted by nasreddin at 4:02 PM on July 13, 2009

Anything by Joan Didion. I particularly like her short essay, On Morality:
When we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.
posted by ewiar at 4:23 PM on July 13, 2009

well, Hemingway. His short story Hills Like White Elephants is one of the most crafted stories I've ever seen and the sentences are so sparse, it is completely amazing. What the characters in this story manage to discuss without ever saying it is unbelievable. Hemingway really was a master at the craft.
posted by gt2 at 4:26 PM on July 13, 2009

I think Robertson Davies has some really wonderfully turned sentences :

Salterton Trilogy

there's plenty!
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 4:57 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

since there's so many there, I'll post one of my favourites:

"I am full of holy joy and free booze," said Cobbler. "I feel moved to sing. It is very wrong to resist an impulse to sing; to hold back a natural evacuation of joy is as injurious as to hold back any other natural issue. It makes a man spiritually costive, and plugs him up with hard, caked, thwarted merriment. This, in the course of time, poisons his whole system and is likely to turn him into that most detestable of beings, a Dry Wit. God grant that I may never be a Dry Wit. Let me ever be a Wet Wit! Let me pour forth what mirth I have until I am utterly empty -- a Nit Wit."
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:02 PM on July 13, 2009

"The ships hung in the air in much the same way that bricks don't."

"This must be Thursday," said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer, "I never could get the hang of Thursdays."

"There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. [...] Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties."

I've always thought Douglas Adams was very good at crafting sentences. I think I remember him saying something to the effect of it taking incredible effort to make the sentences read so effortlessly. I wish I could find the quote now, but it definitely said he devoted considerable time to writing and rewriting individual sentences until he was happy with them.

This page is chock full of examples.
posted by losvedir at 5:36 PM on July 13, 2009

Here's a few I liked enough to copy down, from Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow:

[this is actually two sentences, but you need the first one to understand the second; I like it because it speaks a Truth I'd never really heard before:]
"…This was the moment I began to understand that you can't remember sex. You can remember the fact of it, and recall the setting, and even the details, but the sex of the sex cannot be remembered, the substantive truth of it, it is by nature self-erasing, you can remember its anatomy and be left with a judgement as to the degree of your liking of it, but whatever it is as a splurge of being, as a loss, as a charge of the conviction of love stopping your heart like your execution, there is no memory of it in the brain, only the deduction that it happened and that time passed, leaving you with a silhouette that you want to fill in again."

[I love this sentence, just the way it flows along with the action of the character:]
"I am proud of this boy I was, thinking through his cold dread, and you know the quickest thinking is the thinking of the body, and the body thinks surely, errorlessly, because it is not soaked in character as the brain is, and my best guess was of the worst that could happen, because I didn't remember coming in from the street or going through the lobby, but I found myself becoming aware that I was in my room and I was holding my loaded Automatic in my hand, I was holding my gun."

I'm also a big fan of Joseph Conrad. He's an interesting case because English was not his native language, but he really could craft some sentences. Long ones, too, like half a page. (Which can be tough on the modern reader, I think. I can handle Conrad because I like his stories, but I find Henry James, who also wrote some long-ass sentences, virtually unreadable.)
posted by Bron at 6:17 PM on July 13, 2009

Seconding Douglas Adams.

Also, P.G. Wodehouse.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:17 PM on July 13, 2009

I think I remember him saying something to the effect...

He talks about this in the Salmon of Doubt - in his introduction to an unfinished P.G.Wodehouse book

and yes, Douglas Adams, P.G. Wodehouse, and also Jane Austen
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:08 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've just finished reading a few Michael Chabon books, and his love and command of the English language is just awe-inspiring.
posted by edjusted at 9:03 PM on July 13, 2009

John McPhee's writing dazzles me - individual sentences shimmer, and the structures of his works are as elegantly constructed as a beautiful building. I am completely uninterested in sports, but his sports writing (especially A Sense of Where You Are and Levels of the Game) is so magnificent that I'm enraptured every time. (Levels of the Game in particular is symphonic: the way it builds, the way it resonates, the way it comes together.)

I recently finished a collection of his shorter pieces, Pieces of the Frame, which contained the line:

"Dell and Kramer sit up until 3 A.M. every night picking lint off the shoulders of chaos."

I love that.
posted by kristi at 9:06 PM on July 13, 2009

I like Terry Pratchett. The way he writes is very thoughtful. Also Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) and Spider Robinson (Lady Slings the Booze). And Jerry Spinelli (Stargirl has lots of beautiful sentences).
posted by eleanna at 10:31 PM on July 13, 2009

I've always found Thomas Harris' writing inspirational for this reason. He can be very economical with words, and yet pinpoint a feeling or idea exactly.
posted by transporter accident amy at 12:58 AM on July 14, 2009

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