Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"One True Sentence"

"1920's Paris was where Hemingway sought to write the 'one true sentence.'"

Then there was a young man who no longer wanted to pursue a traditional education. That young man would be my son, Harrison, whom we refer to as "Bear" because he looks like one in every bit of that cuddly, dark, and furry curl-up-to-him kind of way. Recently the Bear came to me to ask if he could stop attending his high school (where he was an A student) in order to pursue a writing career. Naturally I was both thrilled and frightened by this notion. While on one hand I was happy that he wanted to engage in a career that has become my own life-passion, I was also concerned that he too would have to experience many of the pitfalls, calamities, frustrations, depressions, losses too many to count, and all those hardships that can go with the writing life, not to mention being scary broke at times.

But having expressed my feelings to him (and some of these so called "expressions" occurred in the form of heated discussions to say the least), I acquiesced to his desires. And I did so for one reason and one reason only. I wanted him to be happy.

Fast forward to the present.

That said, the young literary neophyte hasn't given up his education. It's just that his education is no longer the traditional public high school You-Read-What-We-Tell-You-To-Read-Or-Else program. Now, I'm more or less home-schooling the Bear and in the process, utilizing my library of paper books and his brand new Kindle as a learning tool.

We've been focusing a lot on Hemingway as a foundation, since Papa was so instrumental in my own education and also because the public high schools of today have fallen out of favor with Hemingway as not being "PC." This past Sunday we sat down for two hours to watch a two-part biography on Ernest Hemingway produced by the BBC in the mid 1980s that I had video-taped off the television back when I wasn't that much older than the Bear. Having watched the program for the first time in years, I was once again struck by Hemingway's notion of wanting to write "one true sentence;" how as a young writer struggling to write his first publishable stories in 1920's Paris, Hemingway came up with the idea that if he could only write the truest sentence he knew, then the rest of the words would follow. When the writing was finally going well, he could stop for the day in a place where he would know what would happen next. That way he could be assured of continuing on the next day with, of course, another "true sentence."

Writing from a cold room that overlooked a sawmill in the Montparnasse section of Paris, Hemingway expressed the difficulty in trying to write one true sentence along with the story that would follow. On the days "it wouldn't come," he would have to remind himself that he had written before and he would most definitely write again. But in his words, you not only sense an overriding fear or anxiety that it might never come again, you also sense a tragic prophecy in the making:

"Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

I remember a writing teacher of mine giving a lecture to the student body of my MFA school up in Vermont posing the question: "What the hell does 'one true sentence mean?'" I guess in the usual academic sense of beginning with a subject and adding a verb to it in order to spark some action and inevitably a plot, the concept of "one true sentence" might not exactly fit the bill for would-be writers trying to learn their chops. But in the context of where Hemingway was at in his young life, and how his entire well-being would come to depend upon that first sentence, and the one that would follow that, and the one that would follow that, "true" begins to take on another meaning entirely other than something that is real, or that had certainly happened, or that he had personally witnessed. True begins to take on a more philosophical context of self. Rather, in this case, the existential parts (or personalities) that make up the self and that are constantly at battle with one another.

In learning to write one true sentence, Hemingway was chiseling away the rock that was his outer shell, and revealing his true being. He was striving to reveal his inner core and the hell of it is, is that he had no choice but to engaged in the impossible task all alone. The young man who would come to write unmistakably stylized classic like "Big Two-Hearted River," "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and "The Old Man and the Sea," would reflect this battle with the individual self in his anti-hero characters who will have no choice but to fight and die alone, and do so "tragically." This individual battle with the self to write one true sentence is precisely the process my son is just starting to go through, and that I still go through everyday I place a pencil to a blank sheet of paper or face the infinite blankness of the computer screen. This sense of not knowing what will happen, and having no one to depend upon other than yourself to make it happen. That's what it means to write one true sentence, and it doesn't surprise me in the least that an MFA in Writing Prof would miss the point entirely.

It's a frightening reality contemplating the day when that one true sentence won't come anymore. For Bear, that doesn't seem to be a possibility while he spends his days learning his craft and mortality to him is at best a vague concept. It doesn't for me either, as I enter into my middle years and hopefully, my stride as an a prolific author and journalist. What I worry about more are the later years, when our faculties fail us as human beings, and the writing, which takes as much emotional, mental, and physical strength as it does creativity, doesn't come as easily. That time when we face the void and the void wins out.

In the early summer of 1961, Hemingway the man of blood, bone and flesh, was beginning to fail. And it took a toll on his ability to write his "one true sentence." In his own words spoken with tear-filled eyes to his then private doctor, George Saviors,MD, Papa sadly admitted, "It just won't come anymore, George."

That's when Hemingway performed the last, most truest final act of his life by placing both barrels of a shotgun inside his mouth, pressing them up against the soft upper palate, and thumbing back the triggers.



  1. "In learning to write one true sentence, Hemingway was chiseling away the rock that was his outer shell, and revealing his true being."


  2. Have to say, just having a dad for a writer is one of the finest vo-techs available for that particular vocation. And as the homeschooled child of a writer, I have to say, "Bravo!"

  3. I too know the difficulty of agonizing over what's best for our kids. I support your decision V and you too Bear. Having had an education cut short to circumstance. I would have loved to have went to college. But that just didn't happen for me in my youth. But now I am pleased to learn from home in my old age from the computer and I'm just as pleased kids can now too as well. Bravo V for daring to be different and trusting in yourself and in the Bear.

  4. Thanks for the good words all...It's been a year of dramatic change and growth for all of us Z's in New York. next stop for Bear will be to accompany me to Florence for most of the summer, and a stop in Paris so he can see where Hemingway wrote that first "one true sentence."