Tuesday, January 25, 2011
For the love of sentences
When I had barely begun as a creative writer, I was lucky enough to take a class with Verlyn Klinkenborg. He focused our attention on sentences. Every week he harvested sentences from all of our submitted papers and handed out a sheet entitled "some sentences." It would more appropriately have been entitled, "some sentence disasters." Each class period, we revised these mistakes into clear, useful sentences and discussed why the earlier versions were confusing, unclear, and grammatically incorrect. It was eye-opening to me. I had taught first year writing seminars at my college holistically, as I was taught, emphasizing essay structure and ignoring sentences. Now I was caught by sentences, their simplicity and complexity, by how some people could write a whole page sentence that I could understand easily, by the way that others stuck to the simplest forms of sentence.
A new book by Stanley Fish explores sentences and argues convincingly for writers to pay attention to them. Here is one of Fish's favorite sentences: "And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities that we call meaning." He cites Anthony Burgess's novel Enderby Outside. I like the way this sentence portrays words, sentences, and meanings.