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How to Rite a Sentence
Everyone wants to have written, nobody actually wants to write. Not surprising. The kind of writing that makes for easy reading takes hard work. And no matter how many times you suffer through Strunk & White’s cold pontifications or Stanley Fish’s voyeuristic approach to syntactic forms, writing remains difficult.
Much of the difficulty lies in the weirdness of it all. The Elements of Style, clinical and antiseptic as it is, approaches the writing experiment like a middle-schooler dissecting a frog when it is more like what Ben Franklin did with his kite. I suppose one can learn some elements of style from it, but mostly those elements which would make some mournful soul look at your sentence all neatly laid out on the soft white page and say, “Doesn’t it look natural?”
Fish’s How to Write a Sentence is a better guide if only because he supposes writing is a warm-blooded enterprise. But for all his assistance in recognizing rhetorical shapes and forms, the reader doesn’t come away knowing how sentences behave.
The Elements of Style wasn’t “elemental” enough. Strunk and White never got down to the nature of words and sentences and paragraphs. Fish pays attention to function, but ignores the various temperaments of linguistic phenomena. And this seems to be a weakness in most writing guides.
I take it for granted that writing is weird. I think of paragraphs and sentences and words as the phantoms that haunt my pen. Writing is a rite; as much an exorcism as an exercise. I pull on my pen and something on the other end pushes. Describing this process a couple of centuries ago would have landed me a spot in the plot of The Crucible. Reading could be construed as a mild form of necromancy, and writing a kind of divination. Some may prefer to think of them in Platonic participatory terms. But no matter the taxonomy, the wonder that is reading and writing never ceases to be magical.
A paragraph is what happens when sentences get together. But sentences, headstrong and independent as they so often are, must be taught how to get on well with others. They must be brought in line, in harmony, in union with one another. But it must be a felicitous union. A forced union between conflicting clauses causes a certain discomfort in a reader. It is the kind of unease which a dinner guest may feel upon witnessing a private familial row; he can’t unsee the unpleasantness, and now he is at a loss for what to do with his eyes. Good writing spares its readers the burden of such moments of mutual embarrassment. Good writers are dedicated to the proposition that propositions must be dedicated to one another. If they can’t be happily married, then they have to break it off before the relationship ever becomes public.
Paragraphs are made out of sentences; sentences are made out of trouble. A sentence is a rag-tag pack of unwieldy words, most of which refuse to come when called, or if they do come they do so with all the elegance of a herd of feral cats—and with the same penchant for rambling.
Sentences are seventy-five percent liquid; made mostly of sweat. A decent writer agonizes over the words so that the reader doesn’t have to. But first the writer must find those elusive words which hide in the nettle-laden thickets around the edges of his imagination. And getting there is difficult.
By some dark magic, the path into the bush is daily overgrown and covered with brambles. Each day finds the writer groping his way into the deep unknown, reaching out with mental fingers, hoping to lay hold upon some amiable noun or reclusive verb. Should the writer prove successful in his quest for words, he then faces the new challenge of finding his way back again. The mysterious wood into which he journeyed is an enchanted place, if he lingers too long with his newfound treasures he soon forgets why he first set out at all.
Too many have been the times that I have raised my voice, calling down the hollow, dusty, and unfurnished spaces of my mind, summoning my servants, my carefully chosen but willful and lazy staff of words, to my immediate aid, but hearing no answer. No doubt my staff was off somewhere dreaming of exciting and exotic things, too amazed by the marvelous to be intruded upon by the monotonous. Such jobs as I find for them to do seem tedious to them. The more I entreat them, the less they seem to listen.
After an hour or two, a little lad of a word begins to feel sorry for me and comes and tugs on my britches leg. It’s always the same short, indefinite article with nothing particular to say. Yet, he offers the small comfort of having at least tried to say something. Then, as though my own volition played no part in the matter, my staff slowly starts to assemble in the Great Hall of my mind, standing at eager attention. “Your orders sir?” they say with a mischievous grin, pretending that we don’t both know who is really in charge.
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