Reading Like a Writer: “Sonny’s Blues”

This sentence is from “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin: “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

An awesome pair of sentences from an awesome story. What might we learn from them as writers?

  1. Don’t be afraid, or not too afraid, to address big questions. The rest of the story, at least in one reading of it, leads to this assertion about why we make art. The rest of the story provides the personal context for a character to make this statement. I don’t say that to minimize the other big questions in the story: race, relationships, ethics and others, but these sentences address aesthetics directly.
  2. The sentences also appear very organically as a part of the story, as a comment on a blues performance. They are in the middle of the paragraph in which they appear and it is possible to miss them. This possibility, it seems to me, makes them more valuable when found.
  3. The sentences are also in the language of a specific character, who comes to think this in a specific situation that is part of a larger specific relationship. I don’t think Baldwin started with these sentences, but the story seems almost build around them. Perhaps this third point is just a way of restating the first two.
  4. To get even more focused, one elements (a tale), which contains others (suffering, delight, conditional/optional triumph), is described (never new) in ways Pound, for example, might be critical of, and its necessity is also stated (it always must be heard). The second sentence, fused with a third, justifies the first sentence and its assertion.

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