Hemingway’s “Write one true sentence” is one of those pieces of writing advice that has always made me chuckle. If you’re not familiar with the saying, here it is in context (from The Moveable Feast):
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. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say. If I started to write elaborately, or like someone introducing or presenting something, I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence I had written.
Sometimes I feel as if I can spend a lifetime and not reach that goal. Other times, I remember that he did not say “Write the best line ever known to humanity” or even “Write one good line.” No, rather the focus is on “the first true simple declarative sentence.”
For the past few months, I’ve developed a habit of pulling out a line or two from my daily writing and sharing it with a few other writers. The attempt to find those lines that can stand on their own out of a shitty first draft is an informative practice. And reading those tentative new lines shared by the other writers has been equally informative.
I confess to not always going with the true line but rather the one that I felt was good. That’s a lot of pressure for a fresh page of words, newly entered into the world. So this is a reminder to myself: go for the true line.
Bonus: Check out Poet & Writers’ Tumblr of “Lines We Live By” for a fantastic collection of both true and good lines.