My new “treadmill book” ( the one I read while I huff and puff at the YMCA) is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It’s a memoir of his life as a very poor expatriate, living and writing in 1920s Paris.
I first read it in college, and re-reading it is like traveling in a time machine. The marked passages are like a little glimpse into the twenty-year-old me, who was spending an exhilarating semester studying in the City of Lights. Most of the marked quotations have to do with Hemingway’s descriptions of Paris and its seasons. It fills me with a longing for the city that actually surprises me, it’s so intense. It’s a feeling I’m going to have to explore some more.
But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m here to share the following passage from A Moveable Feast with all you other writers out there. In this passage is contained the single best bit of writing advice I’ve ever heard:
But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “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.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.
I was re-introduced to this particular passage a few years ago, so I’ve been taking this advice to heart for a while. And let me tell you: it works. It works beautifully.
It’s especially good advice to follow when writing about spiritual topics. It’s so easy, when writing about faith, to fall back on big broad generalizations that sound good, that sound like the things people expect you to say. But these generalizations are not always the truth. Sometimes, for me, the truest sentence I know is more along the lines of, “I have absolutely no idea who God is.” Sometimes, it’s “I am not liking being Catholic at the moment.” Sometimes, it’s “I don’t really know if I even believe all of this stuff.”
These “truest sentences” rarely end up on the page. They usually stay in my mind, as a kind of reminder; or, if I do use them, I often end up revising them slightly. But they never fail to get me out of my writer’s block. Even better, when I stop and write the truest sentence I know, that’s usually when my writing begins to move and breathe on its own.
If you’re ever stuck, try it. Think of the truest sentence that you know … and then follow it where it takes you.