What a line can do

Once upon a time in art school, our teacher instructed us to create an entire drawing with a single line: no picking up the pen or pencil. I drew a tree, badly. When she came over to inspect, I told her I had no idea how to do what she wanted, that it didn’t seem possible to render anything well without several lines. Wordlessly, iconically, Mr. Miyagi-ly, she turned over a page in my notebook and drew a gumball machine; not a Norman Rockwell gumball machine, but a quivering, quirky one I could easily see greeting guests in the home of Tim Burton.

We at One Story are certainly aware of the power of the single story. These days I’ve been thinking about the kinetic potential of the single line. I have favorites that have forced entry into my head for days, sometimes years, that have on occasion colored my entire appreciation of an otherwise lukewarm story or novel. A line that makes me agonize, how did the author even think of this? Writers who excavate everyday dirt and turn over gems are few and far between. Tom Robbins, a man who squeezes the tar out of words, who has never met a noun he couldn’t change into a verb, said “The only success with which a writer might be meaningfully concerned is…whether or not, when their nouns meet their verbs, the verbs yell out, ‘Gotcha, baby!'”

I began pulling books down from my shelves so I could make a list of “gotcha” lines. Many of my favorite were dismissed after coming to find they were culminations of a dependant series of lines, or airy distillations of great ideas rather than catch-able, tangible lines, or just plain not as good as I remembered. I excluded playwrights and poets. I kept to single sentences. Here are some I came up with:

“They pause, motionless, watching each other, and for a moment she is precisely what she appears to be: a pregnant woman kneeling in a kitchen with her three-year-old son, who knows the number four.”
-from Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

“She has important hair.”
-from Don DeLillo’s White Noise

“Usually we were guilty and frightened because there was something wrong with us and we didn’t know what it was, but that day we had the feeling of men who had worked.”
-from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son

“But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.”
-from John Updike’s Rabbit, Run

“She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing.”
-from J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”

“She wrote to him fairly regularly, from a paradise of triple exclamation points and inaccurate observations.”
-from J.D. Salinger’s “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”

“When she crept back to his bed, he was sleeping like a boy, the way men did.”
-from Lorrie Moore’s “The Jewish Hunter”

“Understand your cat is a whore and can’t help you.”
-from Lorrie Moore’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love.”

“Sucking her thumb like a child (her age nineteen last November), she lay in this good world, this new world, this world at the end of the tunnel, until a desire to see it or forestall it drove her, tossing her blankets, to guide herself to the window, and there, looking out upon the garden, where the mist lay, all the windows open, one fiery-bluish, something murmuring in the distance, the world of course, and the morning coming, ‘Oh,’ she cried, as if in pain.”
-from Virginia Woolf’s “A Woman’s College from the Outside.”

“To express grief on skates seemed almost impossible, and Fenstad liked that.”
-from Charles Baxter’s “Fenstad’s Mother.”

As I am a wise grasshopper, I cut out that gumball machine my art teacher drew and have it hanging by my mirror. It is battered and bruised. When I forget how powerful and innovative a simple line can be, I look at it and cry. No I don’t. Normally, I am nowhere near it. But, I am happy to have it.

Do you have a line that has forced entry into your consciousness? Please share.

10 thoughts on “What a line can do

  1. “He was blond and beautiful and knew how to peel a potato.” – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

  2. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. -Nora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. You’re right, the one liner was hard to find–she has some that I think are more powerful in there, on the first page even, but it takes three sentences at least to get there…

  3. “The Shadows of the smallest stones lay like pencil lines across the sand and the shapes of the men and their mounts advanced elongate before them like strands of the night from which they’d ridden, like tentacles to bind them to the darkness yet to come.”–Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

  4. I love that M. Cunningham line. Here’s one I’ve loved, from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead: “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”

  5. “I wonder why we think the thoughts and emotions of animals are simple.” – from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley

  6. I love this idea about one line! I have tons of favorite one-liners. The first one-liner I ever became aware of was from Joyce’s short story “Araby.” “While she spoke she turned a silver bracelet round and round her wrist.” It’s so simple, just a careless gesture, but this very line gave me a complete picture of who the character was. This line always meant a lot to me because it is what truly taught me that simple gestures and phrases can often be more monumental than anything else we try to write.

  7. A line I have just fallen for that EB White wrote after he left New York and moved into a farmhouse in Maine with his wife: “Just to live in the country is a full-time job. You don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

  8. “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, or play at a game of constantly being wrong with a priceless set of vocabularies, or we can bravely deplore, but please please come flying.” Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop

  9. I’ve never seen a good football player who wanted to learn a foreign language.
    -Don DeLillo, End Zone

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