Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sentences to Die For

This post has nothing to do with capital punishment (death sentences!) but with those gems of prose style that I collect and savor, often wishing I had written them.

I do so in part because reading good prose--the kind that is carefully, creatively constructed--is what keeps me fresh as a writer.

And I am a connoisseur of sentences because, again this summer, I will be teaching a writing workshop (at the Winter Park Public Library from June 26-July 31).  I want my students to see how many sentence patterns there are, many worthy of imitation, and what options they have as writers. Of course, I will stress the importance of one overriding fact: the key to good writing is wide, careful reading in which we pay attention to the style of sentences, whether the author is writing fiction or non-fiction.

A number of good writers have emphasized the sentence as the key area of writing (and revision), the unit to focus on. Kathryn Schulz in a recent web post singles out Geoff Dyer, an English writer, for his mastery of non-fiction sentences that catch her eye and ear. She finds that Dyer (author of The Color of Memory) reaches new heights in extending the possibilities of the individual sentence.

For example, on a saxophone solo by John Coltrane Dyer writes, "It's pretty and then dangerous as he reaches so high the sky blues into the darkness of space before reentering, everything burning up around him."

Like Coltrane's music, Dyer reaches, as he does with the daring use of "blues": it serves, as Schulz points out, as verb, noun and adjective at the same time, making it seem "like the solo is still rising and what's falling is the sky."

This is poetic prose, highly calculated to dazzle. And it can be found in many places.  I don't know if I would be able to tolerate too many sentences like the one by Dyer; but one is all I need.

I often find in the New Yorker examples of less fancy but clever sentences that exemplify the left-handed (or periodic) pattern that is worth emulating, in which the modifiers pile up ahead of the main clause, as in this opening sentence by Anthony Lane, reviewing a current movie:

"Wrinkled and crinkled, huge in Japan, heroically reluctant to give up, and forever touring the world on a mission to make us scream, Godzilla is the Mick Jagger of giant amphibians."

I love this sentence not just because of the witty Jagger-Godzilla analogy, which I would never have thought of, but because the main clause--about Godzilla-- comes as a delightful surprise after the calculated opening.  Lane has the ability to make reviewing a Hollywood film into something of a work of art--delightful to readers with no interest in such movies.

I will, no doubt, as the summer progresses, share more sentences and commentary about the importance of the well-crafted sentence as the essence of good writing.

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