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One Great Sentence: Michael Paterniti 1 min read

One Great Sentence: Michael Paterniti

By Cary Littlejohn

The inimitable Jacqui Banaszynski, now the editor at Neiman Storyboard, formerly a professor at my very own University of Missouri School of Journalism, and forever a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and master storyteller, had a section she repeated in her early versions of the Storyboard newsletter that I greatly admired. She called it “One Great Sentence.” In that space, she simply celebrated beautiful writing, and when writing won’t come, I like to celebrate the best there is, as if hoping that some osmotic process will transfer others’ brilliance to me somehow. It’s why I sometimes write to the Hamilton soundtrack – it’s just flat-out brilliant.

I want to use thoughts about writing as a jump starter for my blog posts where I’m just pushing myself to get words on the page. Today’s example comes from Michael Paterniti, of GQ and Esquire and Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine fame. At the 2015 Power of Storytelling conference, he said:

“This is the deep mystery of what we do when we write—the how of it—that I would argue isn’t so mysterious after all. Writing is everyday work. It’s a blue-collar job with white-collar aspirations. It’s turning wonder into words, with the materials at hand. Hours upon hours of compulsive obsessive gerrymandering, until your head and back hurts. We lose ourselves in the jungle, then return, as if after a long quest, shaggier and perhaps wiser. Doubt and hard work, that’s partly what writing is. Risk and faith, that is, too.”

The beauty of this quote is the meta level on which it works. The words —when evaluated on the message they seek to convey – are demystifying, inviting, reassuring, workmanlike and blue-collar. But these same words – when evaluated for the lyrical musicality that language sometimes attains in the hands of the truly gifted – are awe-inspiring, beautiful in their simplicity, profound in their truth, the C-suite corner office of white-collar.

This short quote inspires this writer. It captures the struggles, reflects them back to me in the form of a much more successful writer, and reminds me that the best lines rarely roll off the tongue without any forethought; they are labors of love, carefully constructed and then rigorously reconstructed until maybe, just maybe, they contain both beauty and truth in equal measure.