Sunday, January 8, 2012

Interruption of the Rivulet of Small Stones for Long Sentences

Hello friends of reading and writing,

I'll be back with more small stones tomorrow.  Steve Silberman wrote on Twitter about an interview with author, Pico Iyer,  in praise of long sentences.  
Here is a bit of his thinking, "What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the "gaps," as Annie Dillard calls them — that don't show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker. "
I think he speaks for a lot of writers, who hope their words resonate in long term memory, instead of passing through on a one-second flight to nowhere.  He goes on to quote some favorite long sentences, none from my own favorite exponent of the art, W.G. Sebald, but one from Annie Dillard that I plan to quote at the end of this posting.

Why not use long sentences?  People do claim they are left breathless, but they should just breathe at the commas!  I do.  Or they say the sentence is unclear.  As Iyer points out, Proust can take us through space and through character changes, all within the same sentence.  There is no rule that a sentence must be self-consistent, thank goodness.  I like to use a long sentence sometimes when my characters are going somewhere in a car, or walking down the hall.  They aren't busy, so I can let the sentence pile up tiny insights they've accumulated and prepare for a change of heart or an outburst of feeling.

It's important to make the sentences clear, though.  If you tend to lose the verb tense or mix up the modifiers, then use adjectival phrases to accumulate thoughts, or you'll make us think you believe that time travels both ways and that trees can think, or some such mishmash.  But consider having fun with long sentences that take us deeper into meaning or confusion, wherever you need us to go.

Here is the promised quotation from Dillard, about a winged maple seed.

"I threw it into the wind and it flew off again, bristling with animate purpose, not like a thing dropped or windblown, pushed by the witless winds of convection currents hauling round the world's rondure where they must, but like a creature muscled and vigorous, or a creature spread thin to that other wind, the wind of the spirit which bloweth where it listeth, lighting, and raising up, and easing down."

Doesn't that sentence take you to a place vis-a-vis maple seeds that you've never been before?  Try long sentences in your own writing!

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