In her book The Writing Life (1989) Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, "Do you think I could be a writer?" "'Well,' the writer said, 'do you like sentences?'" The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that "if he liked sentences, he could begin," and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. "I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, 'I like the smell of paint.'" The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabor it) is that you don't begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or a masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.Until this year, I did not know that the sentence is the basic unit in writing.
But wouldn't the equivalent of paint be words, rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on the canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won't do much of anything until something else has been added. That something is named quite precisely by Anthony Burgess in this sentence from his novel Enderby Outside (1968):
And the words slide into slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.
Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere.
How to Write a Sentence: and How to Read One
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Not the word.
That's 'cause I was educated by wolves.