Do your best sentences come from on high, or are they the product of much working and reworking?
There’s something in the Four Quartets about language that doesn’t disintegrate. That’s what I try to do—write sentences that won’t be like sand castles. I’ve gotten to the point where I seem to recognize a good sentence when I’ve written it on the typewriter. Often it’s surrounded by junk. So I’m extremely careful. If a good sentence occurs in an otherwise boring paragraph, I cut it out, rubber-cement it to a sheet of typewriter paper, and put it in a folder. It’s just like catching a fish in a creek. I pull out a sentence and slip a line through the gills and put it on a chain and am very careful not to mislay it. Sometimes I try that sentence in ten different places until finally it finds the place where it will stay—where the surrounding sentences attach themselves to it and it becomes part of them. In the end what I write is almost entirely made up of those sentences, which is why what I write now is so short. They come one by one, and sometimes in dubious company. Those sentences that are really valuable are mysterious—perhaps they come from another place, the way lyric poetry comes from another place. They come from some kind of unconscious foreknowledge of what you are going to do. Because when you find the place where a sentence finally belongs it is utterly final in a way you had no way of knowing: it depends on a thing you hadn’t written. When I wrote those fables and sat with my head over the typewriter waiting patiently, empty as a bucket that somebody’s turned upside down, I was waiting for a story to come from what you could call my unconscious. Or it could be from the general unconscious. Often before poets write a poem they begin to hear the cadences of it, and then they begin to hear humming in their ears, and there are other strange manifestations, and then finally words. The last is the words.
—William Maxwell, The Art of Fiction No. 71