SxS: The Irretrievable and Unnamed

For the past couple of years, just before the holiday break, I have read Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" aloud with my students. As we give voice to the story, passing the reading around the room, I ask my students to note with a pen any of Capote's sentences that they admire and find particularly effective (beautiful, memorable). We finish the story, sigh, and then go around the room again, this time reading out loud only the sentences that drew special attention. To hear the constructions gather in the air — these selected bests, free of their narrative context but reactivating in the imagination moments in Capote's story — is a special pleasure. Why? I suppose the discrete sentences make me feel closer to the making; I hear the pieces rather than thinking of the whole. 

This year, as I drove home from class, I was considering the design and operation of the sentence that delivers the unforgettably affecting loss in the story. Buddy is recalling, in continued present tense, when he learned that his friend had died, on a "leafless birdless" November morning:

A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. 

The effect of the sentence-ending simile draws my attention first. It may not be the freshest image, but contextually, it carries great meaning. Buddy and his friend have a long history of making kites for each other for Christmas and, in a pasture below their house, flying them together — "feeling them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind" (read that aloud, and feel the satisfyingly erratic tension on the line!).

Then I pan back to appreciate the complete sentence. The first half presents an arrival, a reception and confirmation. But the phrasing is nonspecific: "a piece of news" and "some secret vein." We don't see or hear about the message itself. It comes in whatever words, somehow expected.

And then, immediately, something — also vague — goes, something ineffable: "an irreplaceable part of myself." There is no defining this loss. How can you possibly put words to what's now not there, not anywhere, this deeply personal, private connection and history, this fundamental sense of stability and home in another person? 

So we have an image. The closing simile works against the nonspecific language, or emerges from it. We see the picture, as simple as it is, and by seeing it, we feel it. The kite is pushed this way and that, "loose," upward and away in the wind, trailing its broken string. What we feel is the irretrievability. It will never be back. We hold the other end of that piece of string as Buddy holds the "piece of news." Every moment, the part of himself that is no longer part of himself moves farther away. 

Not until I had spent a while feeling this irretrievability and beginning to write about it did I realize that Buddy — or Capote — never gives the friend's name. Buddy is seven in the story. She is "sixty-something." "We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember," Buddy tells us near the start. "We are each other's best friend." Every reference in the story is to "we" or "us" or "she" or "my friend." Had I forgotten this absence of a name? Or this avoidance? Reading through again, I see my friend, my friend, my friend, my friend.... The discovery compounds the loss. 

SxS: Thirteen Words from Jean Toomer

This sentence, from Jean Toomer's "Carma," stopped me, and had me rereading aloud:

No rain has come to take the rustle from the falling sweet-gum leaves.

Thirteen words. Say them aloud and you can’t help hearing the path inward that is opened by those three iambs, a trot of monosyllabic words (“No rain has come to take”) — and then the interruption of “rustle.” Here, in the center, we hear the sound that persists in the drought. Toomer's engagement of our mind's ear then leads to something for the eye — an image that fills the absence of “no rain" with a different kind of falling. The compound specificity of "sweet-gum leaves" is conspicuous, and their action is ongoing; these leaves don’t leave but continue downward, rustling, beyond the period. 

SxS: How Did I Get Here from There?

Johnny Hake, the eponymous thief in John Cheever’s “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” has just returned home in the dark from his burglary in the bedroom of Carl and Sheila Warburton:

Back in my own dark kitchen, I drank three or four glasses of water. I must have stood by the kitchen sink for a half hour or longer before I thought of looking in Carl’s wallet. I went into the cellarway and shut the cellar door before I turned on the light. There was a little over nine hundred dollars. I turned the light off and went back into the dark kitchen. Oh, I never knew that a man could be so miserable and that the mind could open up so many chambers and fill them with self-reproach! Where were the trout streams of my youth, and other innocent pleasures? The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins — your head would swim — and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure. I was crying.

I should have warned you: after you lift the lid on this paragraph and pour the water into Johnny at the top, some of it will come leaking out the bottom, in tears. In between, though, how expertly Johnny and you are moved under Cheever’s direction. Likely, you’re not a housebreaker, but don’t tell me you haven’t been caught in one of those complicated emotional binds that has prompted you to remember, longingly, and uselessly, when everything was much simpler. And certainly you’ve confronted the accompanying question, How did I get here from there?

I enjoy considering the spaces Cheever moves us into and out of, from the dark, still, troubled, enclosed present to the pungent, open, vibrant settings of irretrievable childhood. And I appreciate the play with fullness — full is that wallet, and the woods and waters of long-ago, but filling also are rooms of the mind, “with self-reproach.”

What most draws my interest, though, is the close of the paragraph, in particular that 52-word fragment that helps us break with Hake into the fresh outdoor freedom of his youth, before we are returned to the dark kitchen with the three-word, grieving endpoint: “I was crying.”

The wet-leather smell of the loud waters and the keen woods after a smashing rain; or at opening day the summer breezes smelling like the grassy breath of Holsteins—your head would swim—and all the brooks full then (or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen) of trout, our sunken treasure.

Cheever interrupts the fragment twice. First, having brought to our noses that “wet-leather smell” of the rushing streams and rain-sharpened forest, and the “grassy breath of Holsteins” in the warm air blowing over the baseball field, he takes us one step further in to Johnny’s boyhood with the second-person invitation: “your head would swim.” For this moment, it’s as if Hake is talking directly to us; we’re nearly there with him. And then we’re withdrawing; our mental swimming leads back to the water, the brooks, which are full. I find it fascinating that right here Cheever inserts the second interruption: “or so I imagined, in the dark kitchen.” It’s an explanatory note, a reminder from the despairing present, separating the brooks from what they were full of, or imagined to be full of — trout, that innocent treasure. Sunken then, and moreso now. (The intruding parentheses, by the way, deliver a clever suggestion of Johnny’s present entrapment.) Though just delightfully aswim, we’ve got a kitchen floor under us, and darkness around us, and tears. How deep a sense of loss opens at Johnny’s moment of gain (nine hundred dollars!).  

This I steal for admiration: that the most complicated construction in the paragraph is a fragment depicting a simpler time. And what follows it is the simplest of complete sentences, from the most complicated of predicaments. 

SxS: Together and Apart

The other day, while stopped at a red light, I watched a woman descend the steps of a city bus carrying a large, cased instrument before her. On the sidewalk, she strapped the instrument to her back and adjusted it, and then she walked off. The light turned, and I turned to trying to recall a sentence I once knew.  

When I got home, I found it. Sofia Haines, a talented student from my "Emulations" class last fall at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, wrote it. Or maybe I should say she arrived at it: it followed several pages of character description in an early draft of a story she was writing.

He had often watched her lug the hefty instrument on and off the bus they both took each Tuesday to the center of town, where he went to his grandfather’s general store and she to her cello lesson. 

Now here was — and is — a beginning! A story is launched. The language throughout is simple; there is no straining for effect. There is, rather, clarity and a careful ordering of information. Notice how the immediately established point of view (“He had often watched her”) gains more and more narrative context as the sentence unfolds and we pan back. Following the hinge of that single, central comma, we peek at how different his Tuesdays in town are from hers. Learning of their distinctly separate destinations, I hear that "often" (from the start) a bit differently — I hear in it a kind of attentive longing he may be feeling. I can't know yet if my reading is accurate; I must read on. 

Every word in the sentence has a job and does that job well. I admire how Sofia withholds until the end just what that large instrument is, sustaining our curiosity. And I particularly like "on and off" for how the colloquial phrase makes me see him, regularly: he is on the bus already when she gets on; and, when the bus arrives in town, he is either behind her in the center aisle as the passengers file off, or (my preference) he is already on the sidewalk and glancing back at her — and at her cello.

Such efficient exposition. He had often watched her. Soon he will do more, won’t he?

SxS: Raindrops and Hammers

I was reminded recently of the moment from my childhood when, alone at my parents' large bookcase in our living room, I pulled out a hardcover, opened it, and discovered how wrong I was in my understanding of what those shelves held. I don't know why I had assumed that all those thick adult books were full only of historical facts. Old books with old news. Pages and pages of lifeless, unillustrated information. Nothing relevant to my life, my interests. I wish I recall what book it was that I spread open on my lap. What I do remember is that, reading, I was suddenly seeing things, hearing things, just like in the books I knew — my books. Here, too, there were places, people, voices. Images and sounds. 

I think of this when I return to two sentences of image and sound from Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet (translation by Richard Zenith):

After the last drops of rain began to fall more slowly from the rooftops and the sky’s blue began to spread over the street’s paving-stones, then the vehicles sang a different song, louder and happier, and windows could be heard opening up to the no longer forgetful sun. From the narrow street at the end of the next block came the loud invitation of the first seller of lottery tickets, and nails being nailed into crates in the shop opposite reverberated in the limpid space.

I just love how these two sentences create the "limpid space" we inhabit by the end of them. Of particular interest are the directions in which Pessoa moves our attention to establish the concrete dimensions for our imaginations. 

Down fall those last drops, slowly, from the rooftops, all the way down to the street's wet paving stones that are now  — up we go —  reflecting the blue that has returned overhead. While we are both looking down and seeing up, the vehicles pass through with their songs, over the stones, in different directions, and up slide windows all around in accompaniment. In the second sentence Pessoa locates us more specifically by having us receive new sounds coming from "the end of the next block"; my imagination has me in the foreground of the picture, facing in, ears toward the sounds. From one side of the background I receive the call of that first lottery-ticket seller, and from the other the hammers striking nails.

All was quiet at the start: the last raindrops silently dripped. Now the city space is symphonically awake, and what drops are hammers. 


SxS: Lighting the Way


Into the file marked “spatial extension" I delightedly slide the opening sentence of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:

The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.

Notice how this space takes shape in our imagination. McCarthy guides our attention from the flame to its reflection in the mirror (“pierglass," by the way, suggesting that we see windows on either side of the mirror), and then, when this doubled image (twice) wobbles and stills in response to the push of air from John Grady Cole’s entrance, to the hall and, finally, to the door into it. That the gentle wind must travel across the room, between the door and the flame, prompts our sense of spatial concreteness and dimension. The place is real.

As a side note, the doubling effect of the mirror reminds me of this patient passage through darkness from Paul Harding’s Tinkers:

George sat upright and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He stood up and slid a foot forward into the total darkness of the floor, testing for the edge of the cable rug or a stray shoe that might trip him. He shuffled toward where the door was. He held his bitten hand limply above his head, as if he were crossing a river, and patted at the dark with his good hand until he felt the corner of his mother’s bureau, which stood to the left of the door. He opened the door onto deeper darkness still. Rather than risking the hallway and the stairs, George tapped his fingers along the top of the bureau until he felt the lamp. He lifted the glass and set it down and felt for the box of matches. He held the matchbox against his stomach with the heel of his bitten hand and struck a match. The top of the bureau appeared and the image of him holding the match appeared in the lamp glass.

And the sustained darkness in which George searches, followed by the sudden light of the match and the reappearance of objects, reminds me of what Elaine Scarry calls “radiant ignition” … which an image from Dracula had me writing about here. Oh, the conversation that goes on and on among books!

SxS: In Other Words, What Do You See?

Eager for her rendezvous with lover Léon, Emma Bovary, under Flaubert’s direction, wakes early and looks out the window onto the square. What does she see?

Le petit jour circulait entre les piliers des halles, et la maison du pharmacien, dont les volets étaient fermés, laissait apercevoir dans la couleur pâle de l’aurore les majuscules de son enseigne.

In other words:

The early dawn was broadening between the pillars of the market, and the chemist’s shop, with the shutters still up, showed in the pale light of the dawn the large letters of his signboard.
(Translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, 1888)

Or, in later words:

The first light of morning was stealing into the pillared market place; and on the pharmacist’s house, its shutters still drawn, the pale tints of dawn were picking out the capital letters of the shop sign. 
(Translation by Francis Steegmuller, 1957)

There’s a lot to talk about here, but what do I seeeven after Emma has slipped away for her trip to the city? I see, most lastingly, those capital letters that Steegmuller lights up with the colors of the early morning. And what do I stumble over and therefore not see, not as sharply? Aveling’s “chemist’s shop” (rather than the sunlight) “showing” the “large letters of his signboard.” I return to the original and, using what little French remains accessible from my high school classrooms, note that Aveling followed Flaubert’s syntax more closely than did Steegmuller. 

I must find the translation of this sentence offered by Lydia Davis, now of Man Booker Prize fame, in part because she also offered the following, in The Paris Review, when her rendering of Madame Bovary was published in 2010:

The quality and nature of a translation (let’s say from the French) depends on three things, the first fairly obvious and the second two not quite as obvious: 1) the translator’s knowledge of French language, history, and culture; 2) his or her conception of the task of the translator; and 3) his or her ability to write well in English. These three variables have infinite subsets that recombine infinitely to produce the many different kinds and qualities of translations that we have…. All three factors are vital, but in many instances, if one has to rank them, the third — how well the translator writes — may be the most important qualification, followed closely or equaled by the second — how he or she approaches the task of translating — and it is the first that comes in last place, since minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.  

Curious about how the trip to the city went for Emma? Find out here.

SxS: Flaubert on How to Look and Feel like Death

Emma Bovary, returning again from passionate hours with Léon in the city, sits among others in the stagecoach. Flaubert — and, dutifully following, translator Francis Steegmuller — gives us the others first:

One by one the Hirondelle’s passengers would fall asleep, some with their mouths open, others with their chins on their chests, leaning on their neighbor’s shoulder or with an arm in the strap, all the while rocking steadily with the motion of the coach; and the gleam of the lamp, swaying outside above the rumps of the shaft-horses and shining in through the chocolate-colored calico curtains, cast blood-red shadows on all those motionless travelers.

See how Flaubert directs us to see. First, the portraits of sleep — the open mouths here, the bowed heads there, the sideways slumps, the limp arms. Sleep has stilled the passengers. But then each member of this tableau is “rocking steadily” (“tout en oscillant régulièrement”) as the coach travels on, and we see these bodies — these heads, shoulders, arms — more clearly owing to the motion.

At the semicolon we reach the hinge of the sentence. We leave these bodies for a moment and move outside the coach to the source of the action — to where the horses pull; we need only see their “rumps” to know of their exertion. The “swaying” lamp above the rumps will take us right back inside, with both moving and colored light that will re-present the travelers. When we see the sleepers again, “blood-red shadows” pass over them; the overlay has the effect not only of re-stilling them but deadening them. And yet we know that they are being jostled by the movement of the coach. I love that Flaubert insists on referring to the travelers as “motionless” (“ces individus immobiles”). I think this tension vivifies them, ironically, in the mind’s eye, and that last untrue adjective underlines their unconsciousness; they feel nothing. They areemotionless.

The perfect set-up for introduction into the paragraph of our suffering heroine, in a sentence whose relative brevity contributes to her insularity. As Steegmuller translates:

Emma, numb with sadness, would shiver under her coat; her feet would grow colder and colder, and she felt like death.

The nothing she feels is from feeling too much. Her involuntary motion is from a different source — not from without but within, “under her coat.” The body part Flaubert shares is her feet, also from within (“colder and colder”). She does not look like death but explicitly feels it.

(For more related to stagecoach horses and the swaying lamps above them, see “From out of the darkness.”)

SxS: From Beginnings to Ends to In-Betweens

We open Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and read:

The elderly passenger sitting on the north-window side of that inexorably moving railway coach, next to an empty seat and facing two empty ones, was none other than Professor Timofey Pnin. Ideally bald, sun-tanned, and clean-shaven, he began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his, tortoise-shell glasses (masking an infantile absence of eyebrows), apish upper lip, thick neck, and strong-man torso in a tightish tweed coat, but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.

So much to enjoy about these two sentences, which constitute the first paragraph of the novel and, in opening our introduction to Professor Pnin, provide a head-to-toe portrait of the man. One of the immediate effects for me is delight in Nabokov’s patient precision, which has me not so much reading the sentences as experiencing them. Pnin is traveling on that train, and I am traveling as well, with expectation, from beginnings through middles to ends.

The playfulness with beginnings and ends is of course explicit in the verbs of the second sentence: Pnin “began rather impressively with that great brown dome of his … but ended, somewhat disappointingly, in a pair of spindly legs (now flanneled and crossed) and frail-looking, almost feminine feet.” We leave the station at the dome (“impressively”) and arrive at the feet (“disappointingly”).

Now take a look back at the opening sentence and see that it, too, is built for arrival, but of a different kind. We begin with “the elderly passenger,” isolated for consideration by our narrator, and isolated as well by those empty seats around him, but not until we’ve reached the end — and have experienced the emphatic drum roll of “none other than,” a moment of withholding — do we have a name for the man, professional title included.

In each case we are in a different place come the period; we have traveled and arrived. The sentence itself is an act of discovery (for us), movement toward revelation.

What has been revealed, interestingly, is quite a lot of in-between about Pnin: He’s elderly, but if you get close enough — step inside that first set of parentheses — you’ll see the “infantile absence of eyebrows.” He is “ideally bald,” with additional features that our narrator modifies as “apish,” “thick,” “strong-man,” and yet look at those “spindly legs” and “frail-looking, feminine feet.” (At the close of the next paragraph of the novel we will learn that “except for a soldier asleep at one end and two women absorbed in a baby at the other, Pnin had the coach to himself.” He’s not only physically composed of both the masculine and the feminine; he’s physically positioned between the masculine and the feminine.) 

And naturally, as a traveler on that moving train, Pnin is in an in-between place. I want to say that Nabokov promptly places us in a kind of in-between place as well with the repetition of the demonstrative “that”: “that inexorably moving railway coach,” “that great brown dome of his.” We’ve only just begun this novel; we don’t know anything, really, about this train or this particular man on it; but in these instances we’re spoken to as if we do know. We’re at once distant, observing, and close, knowing. 

That’s where Nabokov wants us: we’re about to know something more that will make us understand what’s especially inexorable about that train, and that will worry “that great brown dome.” We’ll arrive at the knowledge before Pnin does:

"Now a secret must be imparted," Nabokov writes at the start of paragraph three. "Professor Pnin was on the wrong train." 

That’s a whole new kind of in-between. We read on, inexorably.

(For more from the Characters-on-Trains file, click here.)

SxS: Want Character? Look Around


It’s one thing to delight in moves on the page performed by a writer whose work you’ve pulled from your bookshelf. You never met the writer, but the book has been within reach, likely for years, because you know that inside it, among other things, are moments that please you, that keep pleasing you, and that reacquaint you with admiration for this art. But that’s a distant delight compared with what comes from the more magical event of holding pages from a young student of yours and seeing on them a degree of skill and vision that not only exceeds your teacherly hopes but that has you thinking you’d better make some room on your bookshelf. 

For instance, this memorable passage from the point of view of a character named Sister Columbine, and from the capacious imagination of a past writing student of mine, Kaiyuh Cornberg:

Some of the angels painted on the church ceiling wear their robes off the shoulder, and naturally none of them wear winter clothes. In the summertime, when I gaze up at them, they look cool, even through the hot layers of rising incense. In the winter their clothes, or lack of them, bring goose bumps to my arms; they look as though they might freeze and fall off the plaster. In the dark of the night mass, the candles’ arrangement casts shadows across the ceiling so that some angels, at the dome’s pinnacle, are always in shadow.

This comes from a long story titled “Departures.” (I write that sentence and think: Well, aren’t we all in a long story that we might call “Departures”?) For Sister Columbine, who is one of the younger nuns in a far-north convent, impressionable and very observant of her fellow habit-wearers and their habits, the question of whether to stay or to go never goes. There’s plenty more to the narrative, of course, but that’s enough context. I hear Flannery O’Connor: “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.” (“Writing Short Stories”)

Go back to the excerpt and maybe you can sense the emotional undercurrent to Sister Columbine’s observations. See how she sees, both concretely and in her imagination — and note that the seeing she does in the church is not with bowed head but with curious upward gaze. See the painted angels with their robes “off the shoulder.” (Elsewhere in the story we learn that Sister Columbine loves to be the one to place the food orders for the convent because to do so she must use the one telephone, and “[t]he vent on the floor under the phone box hisses the hottest air in the entire convent.” She admits to us: “I hold one foot over the vent to let the warmth blow up my skirt.”) See the cold and possibly falling angels in her mind. And see, ultimately, that the highest angels remain unseeable.

"Place … has the most delicate control over character," I now hear Eudora Welty remind us. "[B]y confining character, it defines it." ("Place in Fiction")

Before our departure from this excerpt, let’s also note how simple the framework is. The writer sees the angels on the ceiling in different seasons and at different times of the day — during summer, during winter, during the night mass. But that’s not right: Sister Columbine sees the angels in the different seasons and the different lights, and that makes all the difference. That’s empathic imagination at work, and it’s really not so simple.

But these are sentences from a young writer who knows that imagining another’s experience, specifically, is a kind of play. And who also knows that seeing is believing, is where it all starts and ends. Let’s give Flannery the last word: “For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” (“Writing Short Stories”)

SxS: The Space Between

I have just finished rereading Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story” and am happy to be reacquainted with the reasons I’ve considered it one of my favorite stories. (An additional reason, I’ve discovered, is not on the page but asleep in her crib as I write.) My admiration of the whole work — character, voice, structure, and more — makes my consideration of the interplay of two quiet sentences feel terribly insufficient. I’m going to delight over just a couple of small trees (well, there’s really only one tree, as you’ll see) and feel beholden to the extraordinary forest.

But Dubus wrote the sentences; he made them, and put them side by side, and put them in the story. And so on I go with my chosen task and my magnifying glass, offering the barest in narrative context … 

The wind has been blowing all night, until now:

I looked at the still maple near the window, and thought of the wind leaving farms and towns and the coast, going out over the sea to die on the waves. I smoked and gazed out the window.

Unremarkable these sentences seem, but the more time I spend with them, the more I admire what Dubus has done, even without reflection on how beautifully they operate in the story.

See how stillness — of the maple tree, first, and of the narrator with cigarette (Luke Ripley is his name), second — surrounds movement in this excerpt. (The repetition of “the window” makes this framing clear to the ear.) Now notice how the landscape of Luke’s thought expands from “farms” to “towns” to “the coast” to the open sea; there are no barriers for the departing wind. There’s a lovely tension here between not only stillness and movement but also internal and external spaces, and that includes the imagined (internal) image of the wind, or where it blows, and the concrete (external) looked-at object, that maple tree.

Let’s zoom in on where the first, longer sentence ends and the short second sentence begins. From a construction of thirty-one words organized in three balanced parts (see the placement of the commas) we enter a seven-word sentence whose only punctuation, the terminal comma, we reach promptly. Now hear the song in the final phrase of the first sentence — “over the sea to die on the waves” — and how it runs into the prosaic, factual, conciseness of “I smoked and gazed out the window.” Picture that free-flowing wind crossing vast open distances, and then the cigarette smoke collecting inside. Luke Ripley stands still in his smoke, looking through the window at that maple tree that also stands still, wind-less.

The trapped longing, even helplessness — the sense of being no greater than human — that I feel operating in this small sample fits the story, certainly. It also prompts me to envision the next time I will teach the story. I often make model sentences big by projecting them on a screen so that my students can join me in feeling closer to the functioning parts, and in turn more aware of the small but significant choices a writer has made. I imagine that the next time I teach “A Father’s Story” I will put my finger down on the space between these two sentences and say, “This is what we’re after.” Precisely here, in this absence that is transition, in this quiet movement from the internal life to the external reality, is evidence of the empathic imagination at work, the sensibility that a fiction-writer must practice in order to render character compellingly and authentically.

I need a word for the space between sentences.

SxS: Once More


For a nonfiction-writing class I am teaching, I have gone once more to “Once More to the Lake,” by E.B. White, and I have been hanging around and turning with this sentence:

I kept remembering everything, lying in bed in the mornings — the small steamboat that had a long rounded stern like the lip of a Ubangi, and how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails, when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar, and how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night, and what it had felt like to think about girls then.

I’m drawn to how casually yet precisely the sentence depicts the movement of memory, of retrospective association. From “lying in bed in the mornings” we dash with a dash right to that steamboat, prosaically described; and then, as we enter memory, we enter the poetic: “how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails.” What most interests me, though, is how the rest of the sentence implicitly comments on how memory works.

We’ve seen the boat, its shape and its peaceful movement on the water in the silvered night. Now, stage set, we hear and we taste, in a rolling, unpunctuated list that shows how the remembering mind slides from one detail to the next, associating and collecting: “when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar.” How far in we’ve come from that initial, distant description, with the foreign simile (“like the lip of a Ubangi”); now we have memory on the tongue, live music in our ears.

But only for a moment.

Notice, next, how we start to recede. The sweetness “we” tasted expands to describe the whole scene — the music, the lake, the moon over it: “how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night.” We’re rising and entering pure nostalgia, which is where the sentence ends. It’s not with an image for the mind’s eye that E.B. White leaves us; it’s with something we experience closer to the heart: “what it had felt like to think about girls then.”

Isn’t that often how memory works? We see the experience again, and then we feel what it was like back then.

SxS: Coming in for Landing

I was stopped by delight only two sentences into “Black Man and White Woman in Dark Green Rowboat,” a 1981 story by Russell Banks:

It was the third day of an August heat wave. Within an hour of the sun’s rising above the spruce and pine trees that grew along the eastern hills, a blue-gray haze had settled over the lake and trailer park, so that from the short, sandy spit that served as a swimming place for the residents of the trailer park, you couldn’t see the far shore of the lake.

I find these two sentences, side by side, wonderfully instructive about artful handling of specificity. Consider the simplicity and directness of the opener; a time is specifically set, efficiently and plainly. We are not asked to see anything in particular. I mention this because what we are asked to see in the next sentence, whose expansiveness is felt owing to juxtaposition with the opener, is plentiful and — more important — effectively ordered. Watch how, by getting more and more specific visually, Banks brings us into the setting.

He begins by qualifying the time-placement: to talk about the “third day of an August heat wave” is rather general in comparison to “Within an hour of the sun’s rising.” And then we’re seeing. At first we’re up high, noting the spruce and pine on hillsides. (That they are “eastern” hills creates a greater sense of distance and dimension, I think.) We then drop down with the “blue-gray haze” over the lake and the trailer park. (That the trailer park is presented after the lake focuses our visual attention. Try transposing the two.) The filmic zooming-in continues: once we see the trailer park, we’re asked to see the “short, sandy spit” of a beach — that is, a particular part of the park. And once we see this, we’re placed on the beach (“you”) looking out toward the far shore, which, in the haze, is not visible, an imaginative fact that further focuses our attention; distance is closed. (If “you” could see the far shore, we would rise again; the visual scope would expand. The point is to be grounded now. Landing completed.) The sentence is well-balanced — that highly functional haze settles right in the middle of it — and we’re prepared for its ambition, to travel its length and experience its reach, by the quick, simple opener.

Two cooperative sentences for the “Mimic & Learn” file, I say.

SxS: Get on Stage (Part Two)

In Part One of this post, urging an imaginative approach to taking “appreciative measure” of admired sentences, I presented the material with which Richard Yates composed the very opening of his novel Revolutionary Road. Here is how he arranged that material — and steered the imagination of his readers — in the first sentence: 

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.

Like so much of fiction, it’s an audio-visual experience. In this case, we start with the ear and end with the eye. Yates begins with the sound of the rehearsal receding, the last traces of voices nearly gone from the air, abandoning the Laurel Players. What are “dying sounds” at the start are nonexistent by the time we reach that past-tense “left,” and these players” play no longer; they are not actors but acted upon, stranded, without lines.

They are also stranded in the middle of the sentence, “with nothing to do.” At the center is an absence of purpose, and we’ve entered a soundless stretch in which we’re moved toward image (and an attempt to see ahead): that “blinking” in the glare of the footlights that shine on this script-less troupe. We follow their gaze; the camera pans back; we see and sense the vacancy of the auditorium.

Interesting that we begin with remnants of sound and end here, in silence, with a word (auditorium) that means a place where something is heard. We’re in a place made for sound that is soundless. Lights shine brightly on the end of something that hasn’t really even begun. The momentum here is from expectation — not of anything specifically promised or hinted at, but resulting from the desertion of what was, and the concomitant, wishful mystery of whether anything positive is ahead. A hopeful look into emptiness. If you know the novel, the sentence now likely strikes you (again) as brilliantly composed. 

How the second sentence works in conjunction with this opener to form the first paragraph of the novel deserves attention as well. But that’s a post for another day!

SxS: Get on Stage (Part One)


I want to put together two points that Verlyn Klinkenborg makes in his recent book Several Short Sentences About Writing

We forget something fundamental as we read: every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t. We can’t see all the decisions that led to the final shape of the sentence. But we can see the residue of those decisions.


Why is the sentence this way and not another way? That sounds like a trivial or unanswerable question until you imagine revising the sentence, giving it a different rhythm, substituting a different word, a different structure.

The first point prompts me to ask how we can most clearly see — and possibly hear — that “residue” of decisions. The second point answers: with imagination and a license to fiddle. But I’d suggest, as I do to my students, a different application of the imagination. Instead of imagining revising a sentence you admire — that is, after its “final shape” has been achieved, thereby distancing yourself from the actual making — why not fantasize that you were there in the moments (or days, or weeks) of creation, of getting to that satisfying verbal arrangement?

Let’s imagine we were beside Richard Yates, perhaps peering over his shoulder, maybe whispering into his ear, as he composed the opening sentence of Revolutionary Road. Let’s say that he had already gathered the words he intended to use to create the image and narrative moment he carried in his imagination for the start of the novel, but that he hadn’t yet arrived at the most effective and artful syntax. Here are the building blocks:

1. the Laurel Players


2. an empty auditorium


3. the final, dying sounds of their dress rehearsal

With these three phrases, we have three crucial elements: the People(characters), the Place (setting), and the Predicament (the narrative moment — the very end of perhaps the last rehearsal).

But that’s not all — Yates has some specifics in mind about these People. They …

[a] stand still (on the stage)

[b] blink out over the footlights

[c] are silent

[d] feel helpless

[e] have nothing to do (now, in this moment).

The challenge: what’s the clearest, most artfully engaging single sentence you can compose with these elements? Where do you begin the sentence — with the People, the Place, or the Predicament? Where do you move next? How do the elements interact? And how do you end?

Let Virginia Tufte, author of Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, comment here:

[I]t is syntax that gives words the power to relate to each other in a sequence, to create rhythms, and emphasis, to carry meaning — of whatever kind — as well as glow individually in just the right place.

This, of course, is a closed-book endeavor. Enjoy! I’ll get Richard to deliver in my next post.

SxS: Up in Smoke


In Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler (translated by William Weaver), “they” are collecting signatures on a petition to City Hall:

"What about you, Armida? Have you signed yet?" they ask a woman I can see only from behind, a belt hanging from a long overcoat trimmed with fur, the collar turned up, a thread of smoke rising from the fingers gripping the stem of a glass."

Lovely how the line of that trailing belt, which we’re asked to see first, continues upward into that “thread of smoke rising from the fingers.” With such brushstrokes, Calvino accentuates the beautiful, momentary mystery of the woman.

There’s something about those trailing lines …

SxS: A Sentence in Six Acts


To consider how T.C. Boyle introduces person, place, and predicament in the opening sentence of his novel When the Killing’s Done, let’s go phrase by phrase: 

[1] Picture her there in the pinched little galley

No fooling around with exposition: we are prompted to see “her” immediately in this cramped space. And the use of a pronoun — instead of her name — brings us close, assuming our familiarity (the redundancy of “pinched” and “little,” establishing the colloquial voice,  contributes to the familiar feel). 

[2] where you could barely stand up without cracking your head,

And now we’re closer. Having been directly addressed (“you”), we, too, are hunched in the galley. What was “there” in the galley feels more like “here" in the galley.

[3] her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make

Now that Boyle has us beside “her,” sharing the tight space, it’s time for empathizing, in a couple of ways: physically, in reaction to the pain of the “raw and stinging” burn, and emotionally, in consideration of the tension between a sense of duty and the questioning of it. At this point, we question as well: for whom did she perform — or try to perform — this duty? 

[4] so they could have something to keep them going,

The camera pans back in answer: “they” need her support, or at least that’s how she thinks. Notice that we’ve entered her thinking; we’re no longer just “picturing” her. Yes, we’re listening to the narrator still, of course, but “something to keep them going” is a phrase colloquial and vague enough that it could be hers, to herself (a moment of free indirect style). And with that phrase emerges a new question: “to keep them going” where? Doing what? Why? Boyle gestures to the larger story, outside this galley, and for a moment our attention is directed forward, is future-oriented.  

[5] a good sport, always a good sport,

Whose words are these? I receive them as the words of the crew (the absent “they”) as they sound inside “her” mind; the repetition in the phrasing is self-sustaining. Although the camera panned back a moment ago, we’re now zoomed-in, closer than we’ve ever been to her.

[6] though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

To exit, we’ve returned to the omniscient narrator’s direction; the panning-back is retrospective, informing us of what went on before we ever tried to “picture her” — and what went on (“vomiting”) is a consequence of the greater situation on this boat.

All together now:

Picture her there in the pinched little galley where you could barely stand up without cracking your head, her right hand raw and stinging still from the scald of the coffee she’d dutifully — and foolishly — tried to make so they could have something to keep them going, a good sport, always a good sport, though she’d woken up vomiting in her berth not half an hour ago.

Mirroring her position inside the boat — “there in the pinched little galley” — her predicament is nested within a larger scenario, clearly a troubled one. Not a bad sentence to mimic, phrase by phrase, to launch story-making, or -finding.

SxS: The Blouse


From Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, as translated by Daphne Hardy:

From time to time, when Rubashov was tired by dictating, he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move; then he found the phrase he had been searching for, and, resuming his wandering through the room, he went on dictating.

Nothing much seems to happen in this sentence of simple phrasing and language, but that what does happen is packaged into a single sentence of three parts, hinged by semicolons, is of interest to me. Part One prompts the question: Is something going to happen? Part Two answers: No. Part Three responds, Okay, then; where were we? But we’re told that this sequence of actions happens “from time to time” — that is, repeatedly; if that’s the case, the silent, still tension in Part Two increases.

I want to look more closely at that middle act: “under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move.” The whole sentence is written in a seemingly innocent third-person; this is mere reportage, just the facts. Reference to “the blouse,” with that definite article, appears at first to maintain this distance. But as I read what surrounds the blouse and hear the possessive pronouns — “… he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under the blouse her warm shoulders did not move” — I notice more that “the,” and, fleetingly, I sense a slight crack in the omniscient delivery; I receive Rubashov’s point of view, his desire, his focus on what comes between his hands and her warm skin.

And while we’re talking about what surrounds that blouse, it’s interesting that “the blouse” appears at the exact center of this construction, no?

From time to time, when Rubashov was tired by dictating, he stopped behind her chair and leaned his hands on her shoulders; he said nothing, and under   [27 words]

the blouse

her warm shoulders did not move; then he found the phrase he had been searching for, and, resuming his wandering through the room, he went on dictating.  [27 words]

Koestler, or his translator, has us join Rubashov in focusing on it.

SxS: A Fragmentary Longing


An image caught by the eye of an observing wanderer in “Case Study Number Three” of the “Urban Planning” series in Tim Horvath’s collection Understories:

The scarf of gauzy translucent red, trailing a woman who rolls forward with the certainty of a shore-bound wave.

What a full fragment! We are, like Horvath’s displaced and longing protagonist, trying to catch up with this vision, this woman who moves inexorably by and away. I take pleasure in the travel from that vivid and delicate tail-like scarf to (only for the briefest moment) the woman herself to the ocean wave of unalterable course. We begin the fragment not too far away from her — the bright scarf is right there! — but by the time we’ve arrived at the period, and the sense of incompleteness that the fragment delivers, the woman is gone, replaced by the wave, which I see from behind. On it goes, ahead of me, “shore-bound” (I hear “sure” meeting “certain” here!), and the distance grows between us. I, too, feel the longing.

SxS: Tucked in Tight


In William Trevor’s short story “The Women,” published in the January 14, 2013, issue of The New Yorker, Miss Cotell has fallen asleep on the train home:

The landscape Miss Cotell was unaware of, while she dreamed instantly forgotten dreams, faded into winter dusk.

What a delightful package this tight sentence is. With its doubling of loss (landscape and dreams), it reads almost like a fable about how much we inevitably miss as life rushes forward. In terms of craftsmanship, I admire how the dreaming Miss Cotell, set off by the commas, is tucked inside the moving sentence and the description of the landscape — just as her character in the narrative is tucked in on the moving train, and into her irretrievable dreams.

Although the train itself doesn’t figure in the sentence, the countering velocities in the narrative moment — the speed of the train and of the passing landscape (and even of the “instantly forgotten dreams”) operating in opposing conjunction with the calm of sleep and the gradually coming dusk — make the sentence a model for emulation. I think of Stanley Fish’s encouragement to work toward taking “appreciative measure” of such a sentence:

If you learn what goes into the making of a memorable sentence — what skills of coordination, subordination, allusion, compression, parallelism, alliteration … are in play — you will also be learning how to take the appreciative measure of such sentences. And conversely, if you can add to your admiration of a sentence an analytical awareness of what caused you to admire it, you will be that much farther down the road of being able to produce one (somewhat) like it.

                  — from How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One