It’s true: I love me a good sentence. I like plots, stories, characters. Individual words can be a lot of fun, and a kickin’ paragraph does please me. But a really good sentence? Or a few excellent sentences in a row?
Write some and I’m yours. You’ve got me.
You know how when you’re pregnant, you notice pregnant people everywhere? (Okay, so not all of you relate to this metaphor. I’ll try another.) Or how when you buy a gold Dodge Minivan, suddenly the roads are lousy with them? Lately sentences have been stalking me. It started with a story I read in The Best American Short Stories 2008, “The King of Sentences” by Jonathan Lethem. Lucky you, it was originally published in The New Yorker, so it’s available online here. (And there are a couple of naughty parts and some language. This is meant as fair warning, not as further enticement to read the thing. I am hereby absolved, right?)
I found the story quite hilarious, and full of super cool sentences like these:
“We disparaged modern and incomplete forms: gormless and garbled jargon, graffiti, advertising, text-messaging. No sentence conveyed by photons or bounced off satellites had ever come home intact. Punctuation! We knew it was holy. Every sentence we cherished was sturdy and Biblical in its form, carved somehow by hand-dragged implement or slapped onto sheets by an inky key. For sentences were sculptural, were we the only ones who understood?”
Concurrently with Best American Short Stories, I’ve been enjoying Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. So far I’m halfway through, and so far I’m finding the book useful, and fun. As of right now, her chapter on sentences is my favorite. In it, she says:
“One essential and telling difference between learning from a style manual and learning from literature is that any how-to book will, almost by definition, tell you how not to write. In that way, manuals of style are a little like writing workshops, and have the same disadvantages–a pedagogy that involves warning about what might be broken and directions on how to fix it–as opposed to learning from literature, which teaches by positive model.”
In previous posts I’ve mentioned some of the writing texts I like, but I agree with Prose: reading the great writers, devouring their sentences, is the all-important key to learning how to write well. It’s also, for me, one of the greatest pleasures of my life. Opening up a book and reading a sentence that startles me with originality, or insight, or beauty or humor or power . . . mmmm, that’s as good as it gets.
So here are some sentences for you. Think of them as a belated Christmas gift, a literary box of chocolates:
“As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenseless. These boys had no practised manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They had only their hard fists to batter at the world with.”
-Willa Cather, My Antonia
Ah, Willa. We love you.
I also have a terrible jealous writer-crush on Marilynne Robinson. Observe:
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.”
-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
And isn’t this just perfect?:
“His face has been worn down by too much patience.”
-Michael Cunningham, “White Angel”
Then, of course, Lorrie Moore, the master of wry observation:
“‘I hate those sexy witches. It’s not in the spirit of Halloween,’ said Evan.”
-Lorrie Moore, “You’re Ugly, Too”
Have you read Ann Pancake before? She’s another of my writer-crushes:
“Frost lay on the grass. It crackled when we crossed it to the tracks, a skiff of ice bleached every tie, and when I drew air, I felt my insides whiten up.”
-Ann Pancake, “Sister”
And finally, the master of sentences, Virginia Woolf. This one is my favorite, mainly because she could have told us, quite simply, the time. But why do that when you’re Virginia Woolf, for heaven’s sake?
“Shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion, until the mound of time was so far diminished that a commercial clock, suspended above a shop in Oxford street, announced, genially and fraternally, as if it were a pleasure to Messrs. Rigby and Lowndes to give the information gratis, that it was half-past one.”
-Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Who are your Kings and Queens of sentences? And if you have the wherewithal, and the time, would you like to share a few?