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Hemingway’s “One True Sentence” Can Save Your Memoir

How a “one true sentence” can save your memoir


I have found the “one true sentence” to be very effective in focusing both my own memoir writing and in the writing of people I have coached and edited. Hemingway’s one true sentence is an effective tool for better writing.

How a “one true sentence” works

Every piece of writing—-whether a book or a section of a book–contains a sentence that encapsulates what the piece is either trying to say or avoiding saying. This is called the “one true sentence.” Elsewhere in your story you are probably trying to maintain appearance or the public version of a lifestory but in the one true sentence truth reveals itself. Once you find that sentence in your writing, you can grasp immediately if you are on target with your writing or not.

For instance, a story that is ostensibly about how generous your mother was may contain the sentence: “My mother was always amazed at her ability to be strategic about her giving.”

Now that sentence, “My mother was always amazed at her ability to be strategic about her giving,” forces you to reevaluate your mother’s generosity. Since when is generosity “strategic!” In spite of the dozens and dozens of other sentences, this one true sentence forces you to pay attention to what you are writing. Now you have to stop and consider the nature of your mother’s generosity. You may just end up writing a new piece, one that is more faithful to what was really happening. Often these stories that spring to mind are the family-approved versions.

The one true sentence is the writer’s unconscious making an effort to tell the truth.

There are other times when the one true sentence does not force a rewriting but merely suggests strengthening what is being said.

Try reading something you have written with the one true sentence in mind. Once you find it (and it may take a while to develop the knack), the one true sentence may just provide you a new tool to invigorate your writing.

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