This year was a lousy one in many respects, but out of the murk and mire emerged some really good writing. Not just writing in books, either: Essays, reporting, and even song lyrics all cropped up this year with lines worth remembering. (My favorite? “He won’t just think about how unbearable it is that things keep breaking, that you can never fucking outrun entropy.” I wrote about it here.) For our year in review, we polled some editors, writers, and readers about their favorite sentences of the year.
Andrew Martin, Brooklyn contributor and freelance writer
Sentence: “About a week after Danny’d put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger and a couple days after his lame orthodox funeral at our childhood church, I went for a walk along a street of patched potholes that runs along Lake Union (near where, a year or so in the future, a future I was sure had ended tragically the night Danny shot himself, my other brother Mike would pull a similar stunt, jumping off the Aurora Bridge and living to tell about it, thus revealing to me the comic, the vaudevillian underside of suicide) and saw a scavenging crow jabbing its beak into the underside of an injured robin.”
Where it’s from: The essay “Salinger and Sobs” in Charles D’Ambrosio’s collection of new and collected essays, Loitering.
Why it’s great: D’Ambrosio is a master short story writer, and his essays, long out of print and/or scattered to the winds, are, it turns out, very good as well, in no small part thanks to off-kilter, mind-jarring sentences like the one above, which summarizes many of the concerns (family, suicide, um, glibness) that haunt this troubling, excellent collection.
Jazmine Hughes, Contributing Editor at The Hairpin
Sentence: “My past,” she told the room, “is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”
Where it’s from: The New York Times profile of new NBA unions leader Michele Roberts
Why it’s great: I mean. Do I even have to explain it?
Jason Diamond, Vol. 1 co-founder, Associate Editor at Men’s Journal
Sentence: “I loved seeing the way my words traveled beyond the pages and became about so much more than what I’d lived, or what I’d felt.”
Where it’s from: Leslie Jamison at The Guardian.
Why it’s great: People tend to approach personal essays with some apprehension, something Jamison points out at the start of this piece on how “Confessional writing is not self-indulgent.” Either the writer is worried they’re revealing too much or too little, or readers might, as Jamison points out, dismiss the entire genre as,” self-absorbed, solipsistic, self-indulgent.” And that’s why I loved this particular sentence as a way of summing up what I think was the ascension of the personal essay in 2014. To me, this sentence worked as a statement of where nonfiction writing is at in 2014, the type of pull quote I’d expect to see in a roundup of the year in writing.
Judy Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Flavorwire
Sentence: “No family is safe when I sashay.”
Where It’s From: “Queen” by Perfume Genius
Why it’s great: Tempting—and practical—as the politics of assimilation can be, this lyric captures the exhilaration of owning your power to subvert and terrify the status quo.
Rahawa Haile, short story writer and essayist
Sentence: “Sasha’s birthday fell on a Wednesday, and though her parents gave her a present, its string and paper meant to be torn away at once, almost ten days have passed and still she has not opened it.”
Where It’s From: “Latchkey” by Anne Valente
Why It’s Great: This opening line is a beautifully crafted firing shot. Cumulative sentences that create dramatic tension right off the bat–without suffocating the reader, plot, or character with specifics–are the lottery tickets of the short story world. Euphony only gets one so far.
Maris Kreizman, Publishing Project Specialist at Kickstarter
Sentence: “Even though you had to identify the extreme duress of your past and locate the ways in which these traumas formed you; even though you STILL need to be wary of tepid men and intense overbearing people who will use your scars to bend you to their will; even though you will probably ALWAYS, in some tiny corner of your brain, suspect that you’re too fucked by your circumstances and chemistry and nature to ever be a regular person in the world with an equal shot at happiness as everyone else, you also have to, simultaneously, try to let that stuff go.”
Where It’s From: An Ask Polly column entitled “You Are Not Uniquely Fucked.”
Why It’s Great: Prescriptive writing doesn’t sound so self-helpy when it comes from intensely smart and funny writers like Heather Havrilesky. Her Ask Polly column is like the most tender slap in the face, an empathetic reminder that we all (I’m referring to the entirety of the Internet here) can stand to try a little harder.
Jacqueline Landey, freelance writer, tutor, and postcard revivalist
Sentence: “I thought that being back in this room in my twenties meant that I’d really fucked up.”
Where It’s From: Rebekah Frumkin, “The Abyss” in Granta
Why it’s great: Being somewhat familiar with the life of a parasite single and the private catastrophe of falling short of one’s own expectations, I suppose it spoke to me.
Kristin Iversen, Managing Editor, Brooklyn Magazine
(Not a) Sentence: “I’d been listening to men talk since I arrived in New York City. That’s what men like to do. Talk. Profess like experts. When one finally came along who didn’t say much, I listened.”
Where It’s From: The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner
Why it’s great: Ha. Well. This isn’t one sentence. But it’s one sentiment, and it’s part of what was my favorite book of 2014 (even though it came out in 2013, it took me a little while to get to it). Kushner captures so many things beautifully in this novel, from the sun-bleached salt flats of Utah to the cramped apartments of Italian would-be revolutionaries, but the parts of the novel that most reliably plucked chords of familiarity in me were those which dealt with what it’s like to be a woman in a hyper-masculine New York art world. Kushner’s writing was so incisive, so spot-on, and so funny. Perfection.
Runner-Up Sentence: “They say I’m too young to love you; They say I’m too dumb to see; They judge me like a picture book, By the colors, like they forgot to read.”
Where It’s From: “Brooklyn Baby” by Lana del Rey
Why It’s Great: Seriously? I’m not explaining that. You either get it or… well. Sorry.
Phillip Pantuso, Editorial Fellow, Brooklyn Magazine
Sentence: “Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity—whenever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body.”
Who Wrote It: Ben Lerner, 10:04
Why It’s Great: This line contains the concentrated essence of Lerner’s prose style: the high-Latinate diction, clausal repetitions, and conceptual metaphors that read, when Lerner’s in full flight, like an ekphrasis of anxiety. It is also a thesis, of sorts, for the novel. In 10:04, Lerner’s narrator works his way from irony to sincerity with regard to his belief in a better future for humanity. Widescale tragedy, or the threat of it, is the last bastion of communal fellowship—e.g. New Yorkers were never closer than after 9/11, or after Hurricane Sandy. But what if creating a better world—and staving off the next disaster in the process—could foster the same social camaraderie? 10:04 strives to remind us that the communal body exists, and is worth salvaging.