Let the sentence evolve!
by ALLAN REEDER
As a writing teacher and coach — one who, twenty years ago, fresh out of college, stepped with novelist John Irving sentence by sentence through three revisions of the heavy manuscript for his novel A Son of the Circus (I was his assistant) — I’ve lately been stepping around with Verlyn Klinkenborg’s remark, “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.” As Irving’s assistant, I could see a lot of the decisions leading to the final shapes of sentences, and I suppose this and my subsequent experience as an editor has compelled me recently to design ways in which an apprentice writer might at least get the (imagined) experience of confronting the decisions behind model sentences, or may easily demonstrate — and in order to demonstrate, to see, first — his or her own decisions in crafting.
I call one exercise “Sentence Evolutions.” I will be presenting the practice to teachers in the Needham (MA) Public Schools today, and I look forward to writing more about them here. Right now, though, time allows only for sharing an excerpt from a piece from which I derive some support for my endeavors. Gary Lutz is clearly as admiring of and invested in good sentence-making as I am. I’m grateful for his words.
It took me almost another decade after graduate school to figure out what writing really is, or at least what it could be for me; and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discovery of certain remaindered books…. These were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater of endeavor, as the place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy…. The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained — as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.
And as I encountered any such sentence, the question I would ask myself in marvelment was: how did this thing come to be what it now is?