About the Author
One Sentence at a Time
Donald Morrill, author of “I Give Up Smiling”
While in China, poet Donald Morrill kept travel journals, “not really certain what I was going to do with them,” he says. He thought he would use them to write poems, and later did.
But he says his decision to make “I Give up Smiling” an essay and not a poem or series of poems came out of his desire for a freer, more associative kind of writing. He cites a comment made by novelist Milan Kundera as an inspiration: “He said that the novel is a meditative space. And that idea sort of inspired me to start thinking of nonfiction and prose as a meditative space.”
Using the journals in the essay allowed him to re-enter his own point of view as he was experiencing China. “I put that against the contemporary voice—the voice that is trying to contemplate what happened,” he says. “I was tremendously selective. It’s hard for me to think there’s a sentence in there that doesn’t carry its weight.”
Morrill is adamant that what makes the difference between journalism and creative nonfiction is a deep interest in language. “Even if there’s a narrative in it, what allows that stream to flow is how interesting your language is,” he says. He is especially interested in prose that is rhythmic; when reading prose, whether his own or someone else’s, he pays attention to the sound of sentences.
“I write pretty slowly—one sentence at a time. I felt and still feel that every sentence has to have a kind of aesthetic lift in it. It’s the gift of its style. That’s the difference between day-to-day journalism and nonfiction that stays beautiful and stays interesting.
“All of the years I’ve been working on poetry have made me a better prose writer,” he adds. “Some people argue I’m a better prose writer than a poet, that my work has metaphorical structures, rhythm, imagery—a sort of rhythmical structure. I go for a closure, a click at the end that pushes you on to the next paragraph.”