Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What I Meant to Say About Sentences

Oh, mercy, I don't even know where to start this post. I guess it starts with Stanley Fish, but if I start with Stanley Fish I really should start with Ron Rosenbaum, just for anecdote's sake, and if I do that, I might as well start with the dinosaurs because I'll go on for thousands of words.

Or I could start with the alphabet. This is my next tattoo:

Because that, right there, is how you write books. You write them with what's inside that monogram, and that's all there is to it: arranging the alphabet over and over. But see, that leads me to a fun encounter that happened during the first or second class period in my workshop this semester, so maybe that's the place I should start. The place where, after a back-and-forth, I shouted "Sentences!" like a child shouting "Ice cream!"

There's also Dr. Haake, and what she told us last semester about the spaces between sentences (that's the place where writing happens. Did you know that? I didn't). There's Proust vs. Hemingway: WWE SMACKDOWN. There's brick and spackle and comma and semicolon. There's Chomsky.

It appears that I have already started.

I wanted to write today about sentences. I wanted to write about this book I read last month, How to Write a Sentence by Stanley Fish, which is a wonderful book that I recommend very highly if you give a damn about writing and (not or) you have made it through The Elements of Style and took some of its advice to heart and memory.

I wanted to write about how much sentences mean to me, and how much it consequently meant to me that my teacher told me I write good sentences. Sounds meaningless, but it's a compliment I'll take to my grave, because I knew she meant it. How much I learned from rearranging sentences nonstop for three years as a copy editor, a practice I would recommend to any aspiring writer who can't read How to Write a Sentence, because after three years rearranging sentences as a copy editor you will enjoy How to Write a Sentence, I can pretty much guarantee that. How How to Write a Sentence condensed those three years and the semester of syntax that I took into a couple of chapters, and how grateful I am that Stanley Fish did that, so I can just point to this book and say "You want to write? Listen to Fish."

How I take every sentence seriously. The mouthfeel of it, the sense of it under your eyeballs and between your hands, the rhythm of it from your ribcage to your pubic bone. How I could barely do this week's writing exercise for my workshop class, because it demanded that we go through a prior exercise and rearrange 50% of the sentences with the notion in mind that the shape of every sentence matters, and I'd had that notion in mind when I wrote 100% of the sentences in my exercises, and then again when I revised them, so what was I supposed to do now? Rearrange them in a way that I didn't like, or that didn't suit the story? Just to make sure I did the exercise?

I wanted to write about the essay we read for this week, "The Geography of Sentences," which talks about how readers get lost in long, complex sentences that branch out into crazy kudzu vines that you have to follow out and then read backwards to find your way to the period. Yes, they do. They do get lost. That is exactly what they do. That is the point, essayist, getting lost and then rereading, because the pleasure is in following the winding road and then starting it over again to see all the pretty things on the way to the end twice. That, among so many other things, is what I learned from Proust: making a reader go back over a long, complex sentence is the point of writing a long, complex sentence. (And in Proust it's symbolic, this structure, because the book is all tied up with the winding, nonlinear, nonsimple nature of memory.) The essayist didn't disapprove, per se, of this kind of sentence. She just said to be careful when writing this kind of sentence, because Faulkner can get away with it [, but you can't, was the implication]. My reader-brain finds no greater pleasure than a sentence with a half-dozen branching clauses, and weeps at the penury of a Hemingway sentence, but the Hemingway sentence conquered literature in the 20th century and even a maximalist as brilliant as DFW couldn't bring the long sentence back to popularity, so I guess the war is won, at least for my lifetime, and I need to get over it, but do you see this sentence here? That sentence there is me not getting over it.

Sometimes kudzu will ruin the landscape for all other plants. 

I wanted to write about the sentence. The glory, the hubris, the necessity, the profundity, the iron maiden and the open valley of the sentence. The fact that all I care about as a writer, when I strip away all my ego, my goals, my petty foolishness, bickering with critiquers, inadequacy, discipline, lack of discipline, hunger, pride, beauty, idiotic yearning toward poetry -

- all I care about is writing good sentences.

I wanted to write about all that. But there's just too much to say.

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