30 Novels, day 28: Just write one perfect sentence...
No Great Mischief, by Alastair MacLeod
(Warning: I will be revealing a key detail of the plot in what follows. If you haven’t read this novel, go read it, then come back.)
I’ve had the chance to see Alastair MacLeod read from No Great Mischief several times. Each time he chose to read the same passage, but I didn’t mind hearing it again. As well as being one of Canada’s finest writers, MacLeod is a wonderful reader of his own fiction. He doesn’t have a booming, commanding voice. He’d probably never be asked to do a TED talk. But when he reads you listen. His voice flows out, sentence after sentence, in mesmerizing cadences, as if he is half-crooning or chanting the words.
The scene MacLeod read each time I was in the audience involves the parents and older brother of the narrator crossing the ice from the mainland to the small island where the father works as the lighthouse keeper. They don’t make it across. It’s a powerfully moving scene, but what brought the audience to tears every time was the following scene of the family’s dog, still guarding the island when the new lighthouse keeper arrives:
She was still there, waiting for her vanished people to rise out of the sea, when the new lightkeeper, “a man from the way of Pictou,” nudged the prow of his boat against the wharf on the island’s rocky shore. She came scrambling down the rocks to meet him, with her hackles raised and her teeth bared, protecting what she thought was hers and snarling in her certainty. And he reached into the prow of his boat for his twenty-two rifle and pumped four bullets into her loyal waiting heart. And later he caught her by the hind legs and threw her body into the sea.
I suppose that’s what happens when the sentences you’re reading are small masterpieces in themselves. At a writing festival on the east coast some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Alastair MacLeod. I told him that I’d been teaching several of his stories in my writing classes, and that my students were very curious about his creative process. How did he put together these great stories?
His answer stunned me. He said that he writes one sentence, and when he’s worked it over and polished it until it’s as perfect as he can make it, he goes on to the next sentence. And the next. Until he’s done.
I’d never heard of a working method like this. Sounds simple and yet impossible. How do you write a short story, or a novel? Just write one perfect sentence after another until you’re finished. It’s no wonder why decades have gone by between each of MacLeod’s books. Whenever I re-read No Great Mischief I’m reminded to pay careful attention to my own sentences as I write, to read them aloud and listen to them. Is there any music in them?