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. 

Writing as Listening

There is a Norwegian novelist who says “Writers must beware of their own good ideas.” You have this great idea, and then you start writing—and maybe something happens, and your voice starts taking you places. But if you start to think, I’m going away from my great idea, I have this wonderful idea! I need to get back to my idea—you stop following the consequences of the place and voice you’ve chosen. This is a mistake. You see a lot of decent books and plots that are fantastic—the writing might even be really good—but still somehow feel completely dead. I think that’s because there’s a great idea, a compelling premise, but a lack of honesty that can only come from listening closely to your writing. Those beautiful moments when you’ve just got to put the book away for a while because it’s so intense—we have a Norwegian word, smertepunkt, which literally means “point of pain”—can only come from this kind of honest listening. And Alice Munro is an absolute master of it. She dares to take the consequence of a voice, and a place, and follow them to where it takes her. 

— Linn Ulmann, "Before You Can Write a Good Plot, You Need to Write a Good Place," The Atlantic, 4.23.14

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. 


On Returning Home

It is a pleasure to move Sentence x Sentence into its new home here within Hillside Writing. Although Hillside has just launched, the vision of it has been around for several years. And so pulling up the Sentence x Sentence posts and moving them from their original ground on Tumblr can feel more like a homecoming than a replanting. 

And this has me recalling some of the most useful and sustaining words I know about returning home and the practice of writing. In the preface to his collected stories, All the Days and Nights, William Maxwell writes: 

... I had no idea that three-quarters of the material I would need for the rest of my writing life was already at my disposal. My father and mother. My brothers. The cast of larger-than-life-size characters — affectionate aunts, friends of the family, neighbors white and black — that I was presented with when I came into the world. The look of things. The weather. Men and women long at rest in the cemetery but vividly remembered. The Natural History of home: the suede glove on the front-hall table, the unfinished game of solitaire, the oriole's nest suspended from the tip of the outermost branch of the elm tree, dandelions in the grass. All there, waiting for me to learn my trade and recognize instinctively what would make a story or sustain the complicated cross-weaving of longer fiction. 

Good guidance for a writer of any age, whatever the genre or project. That there is an enduring imaginative promise in details from home — details that are always "waiting" there — is particularly instructive and encouraging for young writers, I've found. Willa Cather put it more succinctly: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” As a teacher and a writing coach, I find the practice of helping another to discover and sort through what's concretely there and compelling in the memory of home to be an especially satisfying pursuit. 



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: 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: 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

SxS: In the mi(d)st


From the opening of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, aboard the Nellie:

We felt meditative, and fit for nothing but placid staring. The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marsh was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds.

Three sentences—ten words, twelve words, forty-four words. I appreciate the mimetic effects here, especially in specifically visual movements in the third sentence; the sequence to the seeing helps credibly place us there in the boat on the Thames as the day closes.

The first two sentences are simple and short, less visual than factual, providing basic information. And then Conrad takes us into the “staring,” the seeing, with a sentence more than three times as long as those that precede it, and compromised of three discrete directions of the gaze that implicitly have us seeing how the five aboard look out from the boat.

First, and briefest, the water (4 words). We/they see at once its expansive shine. Nothing in particular can keep the gaze, and so we/they look up to the sky, which is wider, and this act of looking into the clear “immensity” lasts a bit longer (12 words). This feels true: after staring out at the water to tip the head back and take in the vaster sky. But the sky — “without a speck” — is featureless. So the gaze moves to land, and the sentence then stretches and stretches more (adding 28 words) with, finally, some material (so to speak) for the eye stay with — not stare at but look at now, and look at with enough consideration to prompt a specific simile that aids in achieving a vivid picture.

It was Conrad who famously defined his job in writing as, “above all, to make you see.” Notice how he works, patiently, to make us see that mist on the marsh, backed by (and made more visible by) the “wooded rises inland.” That neither the sea nor the sky had offered the eye anything as substantive contributes to the palpable quality of the mist.

Those wooded rises remind me of a passage by Elaine Scarry (again fromDreaming by the Book), who devotes a lot of attention to how effortlessly the mind can visualize “filmy” objects, like that “gauzy and radiant fabric,” those “diaphanous folds.” Here Scarry is addressing how writers achieve “solidity” in the reader’s imagination:

The passing of a filmy surface over another (by comparison, dense) surface is not the only way of solidifying walls. But it is a key way; it recurs with writers universally saluted for their vividness, and it occurs precisely at moments where the newborn fictional worlds are most fragile and at risk because they are just in the midst of coming into being.

SxS: From Out of the Darkness

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jonathan Harker looks out from the coach that is taking him toward his first meeting with the Count:

Each moment I expected to see the glare of lamps through the blackness, but all was dark. The only light was the flickering rays of our own lamps, in which the steam from our hard-driven horses rose in a white cloud.

A few years ago, preparing to teach a new fiction course and compelled to begin with image-making (and to impress upon my students at the start that writers must consider themselves visual artists), I began to ask the question why certain images made from words on the page are particularly vivid. What makes them so? The question returned me to Elaine Scarry’s brilliant Dreaming by the Book, in which she offers several answers. Among them is what she refers to as “radiant ignition,” when (to simplify) we are asked, first, to “[i]magine nothing, just an empty expanse of black — the dusky emptiness in the midst of which images form but which are being kept away at the moment.” Then light shines and produces movement against the black. There’s the darkness, the anticipation, and the ignition of motion. Of course.

This example from Stoker is particularly instructive, I think, and it extends a bit my simplified description of what’s behind this kind of successful image-making. There’s Harker’s expectation in the dark (“[e]ach moment”), which is our expectation for something visual. That we’re asked to imagine the anticipated “glare of lamps” and then this is erased — this is not seen — makes the resultant darkness all the more dark. And then “flickering rays” ignite movement. Yes, we can see the light of the lamps themselves against the dark, but that’s not what makes the image-work here especially effective (and it’s not very interesting). What we are asked to see are how the rays play on the steam rising from the (unseen) nostrils of straining horses. The interplay of different speeds — the “flickering rays” are many, fast, and sharply shifting, while the “white cloud” is singular and slower — and the white-on-black contrast are what lends this small moment of seeing particularly vivid power. The exertion of those horses is palpable even as they remain off-screen.

SxS: Open, closed, open


From Cynthia Ozick’s essay, “A Drugstore in Winter,” published in The New York Times Book Review in 1982:

Through the window, past the lit goldfish, the gray oval sky deepens over our neighborhood wood, where all the dirt paths lead down to seagull-specked water.

We travel a refreshing—or releasing—distance in this balanced sentence, which reflects the movement of a girl’s imagination, or the knowledge of place that resides in it. In the present tense, Ozick remembers being inside the Park View Pharmacy, which her parents ran in Pelham Bay, the Bronx. They are facing the anxiety caused by a rent increase in the middle of the Depression. Ozick the girl is not aware of the worries (“My mother and father are in trouble, and I don’t know it. I am too happy.”).

The more I consider this sentence, the more my admiration (and this post!) grows. From the interior of the drugstore we move so fluidly out over the prized goldfish, which are in a window display—there are bright pyramids of bowls of them—into the vastness of that deepening (darkening) sky that is made more visible by the limited “oval” shape of it; from the street there in the Bronx, that’s all we can get of it. So quickly then we are in that “neighborhood wood” (thickened, I think, by the doubled -ood), seeing the paths through it, and then arriving at another open space, a much more open space, the bay, which Ozick makes particularly visible on the screen in the mind with those many floating seagulls. It’s not a long sentence, but it does a remarkable amount of imaginative work efficiently and vividly, just as the mind does. We move from enclosed spaces (the drugstore, the fishbowls, the wood) to open spaces (the sky, the bay), and at the same time move repeatedly between light and dark. The anxiety of the time is an enclosed (or a closing-in) space, experienced by Ozick’s parents, with their suddenly higher rent to pay. The girl’s ignorance of the economic situation and her easy access (being a child) to the imagination make for the openness that the sentence’s movement demonstrates.

And, of course, we wonder: will they be able to keep the store open or will they have to close it?

Whew. Doesn’t it seem like a rather simple sentence at first? My appreciation deepens further when I consider that this is told in retrospect; Ozick is looking back on this time when her parents ran the drugstore. And so the there’s another distance traveled, between the adult writer remembering and the child she was accessing in her mind the spaces she knows so well, important outdoor spaces that feel at once not far away but not immediately available. That’s how vivid memory feels: simultaneously close and not within grasp.

SxS: Spatial Extension


From Mo Yan's "Bull," translated by Howard Goldblatt and published in The New Yorker (November 26, 2012):

Now that the bull was dead, everyone climbed down; blackish-red blood continued to flow from the wound, bubbling like water from a fountain and releasing a heated odor into the crisp morning air.

A word I often use in my teaching of narrative sentences, specifically when observing dynamic sentences that help to shape the physical spaces in which events happen, is "dimension." (And I like applying one of the definitions of the word that Merriam Webster offers: "the quality of spatial extension.") 

Here, I appreciate the dimension created by our movement from the high place to where "everyone" climbed (to be clear of the bull) down to the specificity of the bleeding wound and then back upward through the release of the blood's "heated odor into the crisp morning air." Three movements shaping the space of this aftermath, all working within one sentence (I'm glad for that semicolon).