Know the rule so you can break it well

Topic Sentence #11

Dear reader,

Here’s our topic sentence:

From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied facades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scroll-work and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and secondhand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.

This sentence and paragraph comes from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. It’s a semi-autobiographical book of short stories of 1930’s Berlin, with an interesting lineage: it was turned into a Broadway play called I Am a Camera, a less successful film of the same name, and then into a little musical called Cabaret.

All of this from a sentence, or at least, a series of sentences. I’ve been starting to try and write about writing and what gave me pause here is the incorrectness of that first sentence.

If we remember (or were taught) grammar, the basic skeleton of every sentence is subject and predicate. E.g. “I see the street”. Here, ‘I’ is the subject and “see the street” is the predicate. And the predicate (stay with me here) is usually made up of verb and object: “see” is the verb, the action that the subject is doing, and “the street” is the object, the thing that the verb is happening to.

What we notice in our topic sentence is that it bluntly refuses these rules. “From my window” is an adjectival phrase, describing where the action takes place. But then we have no subject nor verb, simply the object: “the deep solemn massive street”.

The rule is that we can ignore any rule in writing—if we know the rule well enough to break it well. It has a few effects when Isherwood breaks it here.

Firstly, it abruptly eradicates the narrator from the picture. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” Isherwood says in the next paragraph, echoing the effect from this first sentence.

Secondly, this expands the effect of what he’s saying—the imposition of the street is so immediate that it seems to have swallowed his perspective. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a shot that carries us down from the window to rove down the street itself. Any distance between our perspective as a reader, and what we’re led to see is effectively denied.

Thirdly, this sets us up for his description of the street itself. It’s an effective description, using some pointed details, “top-heavy balconied facades”, to lead to a wider scene-setting, “street leading into street of houses”, to a cutting judgement: “the tarnished valuables and secondhand furniture of a bankrupt middle class”. Here, bankrupt could be seen to be initially about wealth, but it begins the thread of theme that Isherwood will develop of both social and moral bankruptcy.

If you’re writing this week, remember the rules, so you can know how to break them well.

From my window,


Writing is easy, or at least, not impossible

Sound Writing #1

My current thesis is that writing is easy. Here is a foolproof method to improve your writing:

  1. Think of something you want to say.

  2. Write a sentence that tries to say that thing.

  3. Write another sentence that tries to say that thing.

  4. Compare the sentence from Step 2 with the sentence from Step 3. Delete the one that is worse.

  5. Do you think that the sentence now speaks to the reader in the way that you want? If not, go back to step 3. If yes, go back to step 1 with a new, connected thought.

It’s not that easy, I hear you cry. The trick, of course, is that there is great nuance in each of these steps—in formulating a thought worth communicating, in crafting a sentence, in understanding what makes one sentence better than another, in the act of empathy that leads to knowing how a sentence might speak to a reader.

There are also things this method doesn’t cover: how to structure a piece on a higher altitude than the sentence level, how to have something to say, how to use external sources for writing.

And yet, this is at a basic level what all writing is. As I continue, I’ll elaborate on how all writing builds on these very fundamental steps.

It's gifts all the way down

Topic Sentence #10

Dear reader,

Here’s our topic sentence for today:

The true commerce of art is a gift exchange, and where that commerce can proceed on its own terms we shall be heirs to the fruits of gift exchange: in this case, to a creative spirit whose fertility is not exhausted in use, to the sense of plenitude which is the mark of all erotic exchange, to a storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation, and to a sense of an inhabitable world — an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods.

This comes from one of my most well-thumbed books, The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World by Lewis Hyde. The Gift is a book about creativity and what it means to be an artist in a world of commerce.

It’s a book that I’ll talk about to anyone whose eyes don’t immediately glaze over because it’s a problem that, like capitalism, won’t ever quit: ‘How do we pay artists?’ ‘How much is enough?’ ‘How can an artist dance with commercialism and not come out feeling cheapened from the exchange?’

Hyde’s genius is to answer this with a delightfully long-winded journey through the history and sociology of gifts. Art is a gift—‘the way you play piano, it’s such a gift!’—but Hyde argues that it is not that we don’t understand art, but we don’t understand gifts and what they’re for.

That is, throughout the history of most cultures, gifts are considered not as property but as something to be passed on. And so if art is a gift, it isn’t meant to be kept, it’s meant to be passed on. The gift has to keep on moving or it dies. The best way to destroy a gift is to meet it with selfishness.

Gifts here are not only physical gifts but the gifts of ideas, the gifts of creativity, the gifts of art:

The commerce of art draws each of its participants into a wider self. The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person.

When we deal with gifts, we are dealing in commerce with the self. Hyde writes

It is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.

Near the end of the book, Hyde suggests three primary ways in which “modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood”: they take second jobs, they sell their work on the market (and put that money towards their art), or they find patrons.

In related news, here’s my current business plan for Topic Sentence: as much as possible, give things away.

Notice our topic sentence again. It begins with a paradoxical declarative: ‘the true commerce of art is a gift exchange’. How can any real commerce be based on the exchange of gifts? That answer is found in art.

Hyde goes on to list the ‘fruits of gift exchange’: to a “creative spirit” which does not feel empty from its giving, to a “sense of plenitude”—“erotic” here is not in a directly sexual sense, but as deriving from Eros, a gift that increases in its giving away, to a “storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation”—that is, art that can carry its own gifts of story and catalyst, and “a sense of an inhabitable world”, which is both a beautifully rhythmic phrase, and an apt description of something we continually strive for, and so often fail to reach, in art.

If you’d like to, you can now be part of a paid subscription to my Substack. I even have a button for it.

However! Topic Sentence newsletter will continue to be a free fortnightly-ish publication for the estimable future, no matter how many or how few subscriptions I get.

But! What subscription ($5 USD a month, this is literally the lowest I could set it to) gets you is an opportunity to be a patron to me and my writing: an opportunity to be part of the gift exchange if you appreciate these letters.

Oh, and you’ll also get a longer-form newsletter at the start of the month (first one in about a week). And access to subscriber-only posts—as I try and codify some thoughts about the craft of writing at a sentence level. And if subscriptions go much better than my pessimism, there are other things I’d like to start working towards: audio episodes, guest posts and interviews. Any questions about any of this, let me know.

And one more thing! If you’d really like a subscription and can’t afford it, just email me. See the business plan for more details.

To a sense of an inhabitable world,


The world were a great mistake

Topic Sentence #9

Dear reader,

(Welcome to new readers from Sarah Avenir/&yet! What we do here is talk about one sentence from one book, every few weeks—so that we get better at reading and writing. Pull up an armchair and enjoy your stay.)

Today’s topic sentence:

There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

This sentence is from The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, part of a list I’m cultivating in my head of “Public Domain Books Worth Reading, Besides the Usual Suspects Like Austen and Co”. I found it through the recommendation of Ursula K. LeGuin—who praises its “quietly powerful rhythms”. And it’s easy to see it as an antecedent of LeGuin—with its depictions of pastoral life that magnify the inner workings of the characters, albeit without the wizards strolling through.

Its also reminiscent of The Hills is Lonely (a previous recommendation), although less comedic: both feature a female narrator, with no attachments moving to a quiet community, and with her, we discover the slow joy of understanding the people there. There is also a thorough empathy in both of those books, where people are not reduced to object lessons, or mechanisms for a plot, but depicted as, well, people.

As for our topic sentence, the “old man” in question is Captain Littlepage, a retired sailor with stories and nobody to tell them to. It’s a sentence that gains its force from the simile in its second half; there are many ways to describe patience, and I’m not sure I could ever have crafted this one.

In part, it’s a microcosm of the book as a whole—the yearning of quiet people to find someone who speaks their language, to find companionship. But it’s also a simile that causes us to reread the sentence, and reconsider the character—given this great loneliness, this “great mistake”, the Captain is not angry, or frustrated, but instead faces it with a stoic patience.

Every six months or so, we go to a small beach town called Crescent Head, five hours north of Sydney, where we live. It’s an easy place to visit, with brilliant white sand, a beach-creek made for floating down, and the kind of sea breeze that picks up and away at your worries. It’s a place we’ve gone to for years, a place out of the usual rhythms, a place for reflection.

The Country of the Pointed Firs reminds me of that place—as a book, its a place you want to spend time in, and revisit again. And in doing so, to reflect on the place you’ve come from, and what it took for you to get there.

Speaking my own language,


No action exists outside the context of history

Topic Sentence #8

Dear reader,

Get yourself a snack, this is a long one:

In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff toward the girl who, after a few strides, her consciousness overtaking her reflex, shambled to a stop and stood, not straight but sick, as if hung from a hook in the spine of the will not to fall for weakness, while he hurried to her and put his hand on her flowered shoulder and, inclining his head forward and sidewise as if listening, spoke with her, and they lifted, and watched me while, shaking my head, and raising my hand palm outward, I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood and said, still shaking my head (No; no; oh, Jesus no, no, no!) and looking into their eyes; at the man, who was not knowing what to do, and at the girl, whose eyes were lined with tears and who was trying so hard to subdue the shaking in her breath, and whose heart I could feel, though not hear, blasting as if it were my whole body, and I trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so: smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.”

This comes from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee (photographs by Walker Evans): a depression-era book of long-form reportage about the lives of rural sharecroppers in Alabama. It’s considered a bit of a classic—it’s fascinating that many of the tricks that we’d attribute to postmodernism and to Foster Wallace, are already here: Agee appearing as a character in his own reportage, a discomfort with even the appearance of objectivity, an anger at the inability of words to capture the essence of what he’s trying to say.

But what he does try to say is by turns, gripping, beautiful and heartwrenching. Our topic sentence comes from one of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read in literature: Agee and Evans have come across a small, beautiful church that they want to photograph. By chance, a young African-American couple wander past, exchange brief greetings and then continue on. And then Agee makes a mistake: he decides to chase after them, to ask them if they know who owns the church, if someone might let them in.

To put it plainly: in 1930’s Alabama, there are no good outcomes for a black person when a white person starts chasing them.

Our topic sentence is their reaction.

If you feel a bit paralyzed at that well of sentence, start with the main clause, in this case: “I came up to them (not trotting) and stopped a yard short of where they, closely, not touching now, stood and said …”

Everything that comes before it is modifying what happens “in the same instant” he comes up to them—the young man and lady freeze, albeit with some astonishing turns of phrase, the “emblems of sense” in his face, her back “hung from a hook in the spine of the will”. Everything that comes after is firstly, who he is speaking to, again the girl and the man, although because we’ve had such a span of words between start and sentence and now, we get snapshots of their state before and after Agee’s actions. Secondly, the “because” clause introduces Agee’s own mortified self-reaction, the realisation of his mistake, his ineffectual attempts to compensate.

Something this sentence reminds me of is those moments (many recently) where someone defends racist actions with “It was just …” White people putting on blackface ‘is just kids having fun’. A ‘It’s just a cartoon’. ‘It’s just a joke’.

But of course, this doesn’t exist. No racist action exists outside of a context of history. All Agee was doing was trying to ask a question. But tell that to the young couple for whom each of Agee’s footsteps echoed with the weight of history, of violence and depersonification.



P.S. Next sentence will not be quite so heavy. Probably.

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