In tenth grade, thanks in part, somehow, but I’m not exactly sure how, to Sassy Magazine, I decided to read Willa Cather’s My Ántonia. I read the book without particularly falling in love with it. Today, I honestly couldn’t even give you a rough idea of the storyline. It’s not one of my favorite books, and it’s not a book I plan to re-read.
But that book contained a line that floored me.
All I remember is reading a sentence and feeling the sudden shock, immediately afterward, of being awakened out of something. The line had transported me completely into the fabric of the story. Not a flashy line, but a perfect one, capturing the essence of the book in mood, setting, and rhythm.
Unfortunately, I can’t remember what it was. All I know is that it was a modest phrase, describing some quiet domestic moment.
Sentences like those are like the everyday heroes of the literary world. They are meant to be read lightly in passing; they are the worker bees that support the whole hive; honey, queen and all.
The whole point of them is that they are invisible. And I guess the mastery of “that line” (God bless it, whatever it was) is that it achieved invisibility to the point of transcendence. It was so clear a window as to become an empty pane, through which you can almost reach through and feel the texture of the flower petals on the other side.
Or maybe it wasn’t even that sentence; maybe that sentence was simply a tipping point I’d been leaning toward for chapters and chapters.
As writers, we like to focus on the big lines, the flashy ones. We like to surprise and amaze, and pull rabbits triumphantly out of our hats. Ending a chapter with a stark declaration, as dramatic as a bomb dropping; or starting a chapter with something so clever it pulls the rug out from under you; inserting a masterful snippet of dialogue or a description that defies the gravity of the written word.
So here I am, writing a bunch of purple prose about the plainest workman sentence ever. Forgive me. I just started thinking about the under-appreciated bits, and how much they matter.
And now, because it wouldn’t be fittin’ to do a favorite lines post without including an actual line or two (or four), here are a few variations on the theme:
Favorite last line of a book, but I won’t tell you which book, because I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you:
oh, I was young then, and I walked in my body like a Queen
Favorite line from a poem (Fiddler Jones in Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters):
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.
Mom can take a simple observation, such as saying that it wouldn’t hurt for a person to show a little school spirit, and say it in such a way that she might as well be saying, “It wouldn’t hurt you to stop clubbing those baby seals.”
from a later scene:
“So what else do you do?” he asked. “Besides, you know, the TV appearances and the environmental terrorism.”
Do you have a favorite line? Please feel free to share in the comments!
(Oh, ONE more from Spoon River, God, how I love Spoon River… this is Ernest Hyde)
A mirror scratched reflects no image–
And this is the silence of wisdom.