Annie Dillard was asked, “How do I know if I can become a writer?”
Her response: “Do you like sentences?”
In a feature called “Old Books, New Thoughts,” The New York Times Magazine displayed photos of handwritten marginal notes by famous authors (Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, among others) looking back over their work of decades before. The notes are arresting. I am going to type out what Robert Caro wrote about his famous, admired book about Robert Moses, The Power Broker. I am going to type it out instead of giving a link because I want to have the pleasure of seeing the sentences come out of my keyboard onto the page. Remember, these are Caro’s own thoughts about the writing of the Introduction to The Power Broker.
When I was writing, I kept hearing, year after year, that nobody would read a book on Robert Moses. For most of those years I believed that. I never thought The Power Broker would have any sort of mass audience. But Moses was a figure who had so great an impact on New York and in many ways shaped it for centuries. He threw 500,000 people out of their homes for his highways and “slum” clearance projects, and I thought it was important for people to know how he got his power.
I wanted to write an introduction that would make readers see the scope of what Moses had done, and how many lives he touched. So I asked myself what I had read that really captured the scope of something titanic. In The Iliad, Homer lists all the kingdoms that are coming to sack Troy and all the heroes of Troy who are coming to fight them. These lists have a great rhythm to them. I thought that, if I could write well enough, I could do the same with highways:
“He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway.”
The change in rhythm in the last line, that’s a dying fall.
Thus Robert Caro wrote. To appreciate the rhythm of the dying fall, that is to love language, poetry, and sentences.