Why I Write: The Form of a Sentence

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum on finding thought in language—or is it the other way around?

sarah shun lien bynum
Dustin Snipes

In 1976, Joan Didion wrote, famously: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.” It’s an assertion I planned on borrowing until I realized it does not apply to me. The fact is that I write not to find out what I’m thinking but simply to confirm that I am thinking. As to why this is, I’ve begun to doubt that whatever’s happening inside my mind still qualifies as “thought.”

An honest inventory of my consciousness would yield the following: to-do lists, Dua Lipa lyrics, meal planning, traffic strategizing, superficial observations about nature (bees really like the African basil) immediately succeeded by existential dread (oh god! the bees). Does any of this rise to the level of thought? I think not. Instead I worry, which is the opposite of thinking. My worries arrive in various shapes and sizes: whether the dog is developing a hot spot; whether the Democrats can protect voting rights; whether In the Heights will get a second wind at the box office. I worry about slowdowns on the 101. I worry about my daughter’s stomachaches, the cause of which remains unknown.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

My imagination has atrophied, as has my tendency to wonder. My mind does not wander so much as run laps around a murky, unmoving reservoir. I’ve lost the habit of noticing, and I can’t remember my dreams. It’s possible that the onset of middle age is to blame. Or four years of a presidency during which any sense of shared reality ceased to exist. Or 15 months of pandemic-induced uncertainty and social isolation. Or maybe it’s the dull roar of devices and their surfeit of information: a background hum so inescapable that it prevents normal thought.

Oh god. Even the culprits sound tired. To attempt to think is to risk repeating what has already been said, ad nauseam. The familiar grooves beckon. For someone who has assiduously avoided, as I have, the act of writing since the start of the pandemic, any task involving written language appears monumental. Of course, the problem is not a shortage of words but a deficit of thought.

Yet. The request to consider why I write, which first entered my mind as a worry, has started to shift into something else: a foreign element, a disruptive presence. In the midst of my daily blankness, I feel its subtle and irritating pressure—grit in the eye, gravel in the shoe—a pressure that insists upon my attention. A pressure that begins to gather form: the form of a sentence. First a subject. Then a predicate. An adverb for emphasis. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking…”

So it’s not my sentence. Not my thought. But it’s a start, and a respite from the usual droning. It’s the sound of precise syntax moving neatly through my mind.

I repeat Didion’s sentence, hold it up to myself, see if it might fit. Is this why I (theoretically) write? No, not quite; it’s close, but not exactly true—not as a description of my mind, that is. Or at least, not my mind as it functions currently. And so the sentence must be qualified, a distinction made, new emphasis added—and before I’m even aware of doing so, I am trying out words, organizing them into clauses, discarding some and keeping others, moving them around. I am trying to get closer to a sentence that says what I want it to say. I am trying to match the sentence to my way of thinking.

The feeling of rightness or wrongness as I arrange and rearrange the words is how I know I am having a thought. A thought that wouldn’t have come if not for the writing of the sentence. A sentence that wouldn’t have been written if not for my reading of Didion.

To my own surprise, and against the odds, I find myself answering the question.•

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is the author of Ms Hempel Chronicles and Madeleine Is Sleeping.
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