Verlyn Klinkenborg: writer, farming buff, master of sentences

Verlyn Klinkenborg.

What are you thinking about? Ruminate; write about anything. Such is the bold directive steering Verlyn Klinkerborg’s unique course this semester, “The Genre of the Sentence.” A member of the New York Times Editorial Board, he invites his students to express themselves unbound by any expected convention. As Klinkenborg (call him Verlyn) mentioned during his first class meeting, he wants to “catch [us] in the act of composition.” Before undertaking this challenge, I caught him in the act of driving back to his farm in New York, and we chatted on the phone about his new writing seminar, his forthcoming work and the myth of the perfect sentence.

Q. Why the name, “The Genre of the Sentence”? What benefits arise from focusing on the most microscopic and possibly most daunting unit of writing?

A. The reason is quite simple: everything you should perceive in writing, whether it’s an argument or an emotion, is constructed by putting sentences together. People are usually taught to focus only on the larger picture. The goal of this class is to hone in as closely as we can to the concrete elements of the sentence, such as rhythm and clarity. It may look like a microscopic unit of writing, but what is there in writing apart from sentences?

Q. How deliberate are you when you want to write something, about anything?

A. I think it’s a question about thinking. People like to talk about how steadily Anthony Trollope sat down and wrote in the mornings. But no one really talks about how much thinking, how much rumination must have gone on in his head before he sat down to write. There is a lot of deliberation when I sit down to write, thinking of elements that I know will fit in. On the one hand, it is deliberation, on the other, it’s all invention.

Q. Do you have a similar “process” when you have to write, particularly under deadline?

A. It’s the same pattern but on a shorter time frame. The thing is people try to sit down, they poise themselves to write and wait for the sentences to come. I don’t do that. I could be working outside in the farm, or driving, and I take time to think, let my thoughts go where they need to go. It’s in that process of rumination where I find where I want to start. Then it goes from there, not because it’s necessarily easy, but because I’ve found what I want to explore, and the first sentence will lead me to the next one and so on.

Q. You mentioned in class last Wednesday that you prefer to eschew genres and the moniker of “journalist.” Is this a frame of mind you establish in order to unbind your writing and protect it from its own limitations? Or is your aversion to labels and titles a bit more deep-rooted?

A. I find your first description about unbinding myself from limitations a really good one. People tend to believe that most genres have rules, and they try hard to live by them. Some of the books we love all end up breaking the rules. Writers run the risk of being trapped by genre — whether it’s in academia or in journalism, I’ve seen people get stuck in their writing, boxed in and trapped.

Q. Have you ever felt “boxed in”?

A. I’ve written around 1,500 editorials over 15 years now, and there have been a couple of times in that span of time when I’ve looked back at those editorials and realized I gave myself more freedom earlier on. Nobody else is giving you these rules, but you still end up constraining yourself in the form of writing. That’s something you have to work against constantly, no matter the genre.

Q. What inspired you to write a book as atypical as “Several Short Sentences about Writing”? With its unique formatting, it certainly reads sometimes like a poem about prose.

A. The task wasn’t just to sit down and write a book about writing. The task was to write a book that interested me as I was writing it. I had to find a shape that would keep my attention and allow me to see what I needed to be saying. This book is the result.

Q. Can you tell me just a little bit about your upcoming books?

A. My next book is a new collection of rural life essays I’ve written for the Times, called “More Scenes From A Rural Life.” I’m steadily working on two others. One is a book about the time I spent in the 1990’s working with horse-trainers in Wyoming and Montana. The other, called “The Mermaids of Lapland,” is about the 19th-century agricultural reformer William Cobbett — a master of prose and a wonderful, if often overblown witness of his times.

Q. This might sound contrived, but what would a perfect sentence look like?

A. No sentence really exists out of relation. Every single sentence gets its value from all the others sentences around it and where it is. To speak generally, there has to be a rhythm to the sentence and you must also pay attention to the velocity in which it reads. I think the real perfect sentence acquires its virtue only in their context. It’s an ever-shifting problem.

Q. Best advice you have ever received about writing.

A. It came from Robert Gottlieb, former editor of The New Yorker. Looking at my book “The Last Fine Time,” he called me up and asked me to “detumesce” my writing. That meant writing a new, 20,000 word version of a 90,000 word book I’d just published. It wasn’t a piece of writing advice, but an instruction in refinement. What I learned about my own excesses and what’s necessary for narrative — it was just a fabulous exercise, to force me to go back and reexamine a book I’d just written.

Q. What are you thinking about right now? If you were constructing a sentence at this very moment, what would it say?

A. Impossible to tell, but I wouldn’t be constructing a sentence. I’d be imagining a sentence, ready to let it go if it didn’t seem to work. Much more freedom in imagining than in constructing.

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