“Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going…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.”
- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose says that she used to hear this, “and I’ve nodded my head, not wanting to admit that I honestly had no idea what in the world Hemingway was talking about.”
Which is funny to me, because in my Tour de Bliss course on content strategy, we begin writing by asking ourselves each morning, “What is the most true right now?” Several of my students start out just as confused as Prose (and some never figure out exactly what I mean by it, try as I might to explain).
I don’t think I knew that Hemingway asked this question first, unless it was lurking in my subconscious…I’m actually not sure when I first started asking it myself and began using it as a basis for what to write. But I understand what he means. He is talking about experiential truth. Not something that you learned to be true, but something you found to be true.
In the context of fiction, it might be something you witnessed or experienced, physically, spiritually, emotionally…something that resounds delightedly (or horrifyingly) true. This evening, for example, I thought of my late grandmother and how ironic it is that she raised 9 kids on a farm in the valley and couldn’t cook. To this day, my dad is ambivalent about food.
This is the beginning of a fantastic story because it is true. What comes next is the writer’s favorite answer to that honest question. What would family life be like if you had no grocery store around the corner and had to eat through your beloved mama’s terrible way with livestock? How would your dad feel about it, after working as a sharecropper all day? How would he react, and how would each of the children respond, individually and as a group?
In the context of non-fiction, truth is easier to understand, but still people ask — how do you know what is the most true? Or as Hemingway would put it, what is “the truest sentence”? For me, this is always the thing that incites the most passion in me. I feel it because I have experienced it, not like I experience a cup of coffee, but like I experience a shift in perspective. The room gets bigger. I am changed.
In the end, Prose gives up on the idea of sentences being “true” — she says what he really means is that they are beautiful, which is no less hard to define. But I think she’s wrong. A sentence can be true, even if it’s not factually correct. That is what makes the reader go “YES!” Truth is common more often than it isn’t…that’s what keeps me writing. And that’s why it’s the best place I know to begin.