I’m reading – I’m rereading – a book because I’m interviewing the author and I want to refamiliarize myself. I don’t remember much about it from my first read (an indictment of myself, not the book; this is true of nearly everything I read) other than some very basic plot points and the memory of having gotten to a sentence that I so loved, I typed it up and posted it on social media, to which the author replied that it was one of his favorites in the book as well. It was one of the few sentences, he said, that even through all the book’s edits and revisions, hadn’t changed since he first wrote it.
I’m reading this book and wondering if I’ll recognize the sentence when I read it. If it will jump out at me the same as it had on first reading, or if I should search my social media for it and remind myself. As I’m wondering just that—Oh! There it is. "And then Cain went and did a thing like that to his brother." Of course, that was the sentence. Of course, it jumped out at me.
Last week, I told my students that, while doing our readings for the week, I realized I might have two favorite responses to an essay. Maybe to any kind of writing, but to an essay, especially.
I agree, though I hadn’t put it into words like that (and probably wouldn’t be able to)
I’m not sure I agree (and/or I don’t agree), but I can see how you got there and appreciate being able to see your thinking
Doing our readings this week, I realized there is another:
That makes me want to write something myself
And maybe another still, though one so vague as to maybe not count, but also so powerful as to be maybe the most important response to an essay, to any piece of writing, to art:
That made me feel something
The power of a single sentence to make you stop. To make you read it over again. Trying to understand how it works, or how the author pulled it off, how they made you see this specific combination of words in a whole new light, or how you might be able to do the same, or why it made you feel the way it did, or how it so strongly and immediately earwormed its way into your brain, or how it buzzed its way into and through your whole body, or how it did or didn’t make you think of home, or how it carried you away in a swarm of language and feeling and magic and wonder.
A couple nights ago, I had a few drinks with my girlfriend and then cut down a giant hornet’s nest in our backyard, because, a week before, I’d had a few drinks and sprayed an entire can’s worth of hornet killer poison on and into it, because, a couple weeks before that, a neighbor had pointed it out and I’d realized I’d just mowed the yard and walked right under it without notice. Being so lucky again seemed unlikely. The whole nest seemed like an emergency waiting to happen.
A little buzzed, I cut the nest down and then I took a saw and cut it open, like some kind of half-drunk, suburban dad science experiment. And what a delight: to be able to cut something open and see what’s inside, to take something apart and see something you never normally get to, to be able to see something relatively commonplace from the inside out, from a new angle, in an entirely and beautiful new way.
Aaron Burch is the author of an essay collection, a novel, and a short story collection; the editor of a craft anthology, a journal built on spontaneous submission calls, and another journal for longer short stories; a teacher; and a "Sad Dad"™* (*big The National fan).