Teaching With the Most Unteachable Things

"I realize that to encourage a perspective on words as unfixed, individual, moveable things, and to sustain a playful motivation to keep words in experimental movement, is of particular interest not only because students often find it very difficult to revise, to pick up and reposition words they've already set down. My interest has also grown from my observations of my own young (not-yet-writing) children at play."

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"Moving along the endless coastline of human experience"

Verlyn Klinkenborg on “The Decline and Fall of the English Major”:

"In the past few years, I’ve taught nonfiction writing to undergraduates and graduate students at Harvard, Yale, Bard, Pomona, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.

"They can assemble strings of jargon and generate clots of ventriloquistic syntax. They can meta-metastasize any thematic or ideological notion they happen upon. And they get good grades for doing just that. But as for writing clearly, simply, with attention and openness to their own thoughts and emotions and the world around them — no.

"That kind of writing — clear, direct, humane — and the reading on which it is based are the very root of the humanities, a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language."

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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.

"How did this thing come to be?"

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.” AIrving’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.

From "The Sentence is a Lonely Place," a lecture by Gary Lutz, published in The Believer, January 2009:

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?