Sentences make the writer, says Don DeLillo, and he’s a master of his craft.


Don DeLillo read to a crowd of about 300 at The University of Texas Harry Ransom Lecture in Jessen Auditorium, July 25th.

It was open to the public, and a pretty big deal.

I’ve had a copy of White Noise for about six years now, and I’ve read it twice. If you haven’t you might check it out.

Will Ruff
Will Ruff

The amount of detail in DeLillo’s writing is incredible. The way the characters feel like real people, and the way their conversation flows like one that isn’t over thought is something to cherish.

It feels like you’re reading a real account, or a narrative of something. Like he was there when it happened. And he’s going to get you up to speed.

When I saw he was going to be speaking, I cleared my schedule making a mental note, “this is what I have to do this week.”

I wanted to know where he gets his inspiration. How’s he do it?

The room was fit for DeLillo. Old, wood panels you can see the edges of clearly, a full-size organ off-center stage, and fire engine red chairs to seat students, faculty, local bookstore workers, some people who’ve probably never heard of him and people like me — an outsider from the UT community but an aspiring writer.

He read from Underworld. A passage in the book that details a game DeLillo went to as a young man. Dodgers v. Giants. A famous game. One that seemed like it was at a stalemate while he was there. And you get the feeling he absorbed every second, every detail in anticipation that it would become almost mythological. That it would be criminal for someone not to tell it as a story someday.

Or, as he read from the book, put another way, “when you see a thing like that, a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier of some solemn scrap of history.”

This is the kind of thing that inspires me. A novel based on real events, an attempt to understand something that collectively lots of people are aware of, and a story with characters that feel familiar. Some of them even based on real people.

You hear about Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, Willie Mays, and the young, skinny kid, “Cotter Martin by name,” as though all of these people are aware of each other, and comfortable being in the same world. It might sound like a given for any story, but to pull it off the way DeLillo does is rare.

He takes you there. His account might put you in the event more vividly than a video, or a picture. We see it through his eyes, and yet it feels like he’s interviewed dozens of people to give it a badge of authenticity. Like they’ve signed off on it.

But, when your book becomes so perfectly American, and at the same time so incredibly successful, how do you take it outside of that system?

Translating the book was no easy task. He sees his writing as being American, not English, and within that realm of American, there’s also the language of baseball.

How do you translate “split finger fastball” and ensure the same meaning?

The passage he read was long, and admittedly I yawned a few times, but that says more about Don’s voice than his writing. He read it with a calm, low drawl, crackling the words as though they came from deep within his throat, the type of person who never tries to act his parts.

At a point when he got winded, and dry, he reached for a water to some applause, but quickly extended his hand, imploring the rest of us “We’re only in the 7th inning.”

A master of the craft. A wordsmith.

I wondered if the mystique was a consequence of age, or some physical ailment, or if it just manifested itself in the way he speaks. What’s the secret? How do you write White Noise, or Underworld?

At the end, during a brief Q & A session I got my answer, which is why I rushed out to my car to grab my copy of White Noise to ask him to sign it.

When asked about the inspiration for Underworld, he said he remembered seeing a newspaper the day after the game, and there were two headlines that caught his eye. The first: “Giants Win Penant on Strength of Bobby Thompson Homerun,” and the second “Russians Explode Atomic Bomb.” He looked at the woman who asked her question, now sitting in her seat and said “That was it, that was Underworld.”

When asked about the craft of writing by a very curious student, and what it means to be a writer, he answered with a laconic message that you see in my book “Sentences make the writer.”

It isn’t about the struggle for him, or excercises to boost creativity, or style, or any of these individual challenges you inevitably face during a project, it’s about “Writing words.” he said. “You start with one sentence. And then the next one comes, and hopefully more after that.”

It’s a message that’s going to sit on my desk for the rest of my life, or at least as long as I have words to write.

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