Sentence as Seed Pearl

Recently, I was asked to provide an example of one of my favourite sentences I have written (to date).  It was part of an exercise: use one of my own sentences as an anchor to return to when feeling desperate or lost in my writing projects. An anchor to remind myself of why I write and what I’m capable of writing by plucking pearls from a sea of words.  

This isn’t something I drop in casual conversations, but in the last wee while (I don’t know how long this is, half a year? A year?), I’ve started studying sentences.  I feel I ought to learn how to build sentences.  I’m not referring to grammatical construction though, I mean I want to learn how to craft a sentence (read: a sentiment…this is what I’m really talking about) that is so beautiful, so true, it stops a reader in their tracks.  

I’m lucky.  Twice I’ve witnessed this effect of my words on readers/listeners.  Once in a poem, once in a letter to a friend following his father’s death. This experience of connecting through a sentence is addictive….it’s what I chase in my writing. For a writer, it is rare one discovers whether a reader connects this way.  It is only confirmed through reader response, something no reader is obligated the provide, even if they are so moved. I have had readers quote my own sentences back to me and it is one of the more pleasurable experiences I can think of.  I am lucky.

Writing transforms thinking into something externally concrete, shapes what is felt, intuited, onto a page for better scrutiny. And sharing. 

But, two times in ten years of writing?  Slim odds and a lot of writing.  And dedication to the craft.

Let’s see if I can articulate what it is I’m chasing.  

Qualities of sentences that I love:

  • Reading, images burst forth in my mind’s eye like a waking dream.
  • The content moves …in time or space or, better, with the palpable energy of shifting emotions. 
  • There are layers of meaning, but the layers are connected, and the connection is meaningful, not random. 
  • The content deepens understanding, expands ways of knowing and being in the world.  
  • The words are playful.  Joyful.  Intellectual if the subject is horrific.  
  • The words are placed in an order to curate an experience for the reader. 

Learning how to do this is very very slow…it happens at the same speed (maybe slower?) as watching plants grow.  

And here’s the hardest part: I must write and write and write, pretending all these qualities don’t matter. Because it’s only when I’m not paying attention, letting my body take over the writing, free from my mind’s controlling, that the sentiments emerge just so, their lustre barely visible, easily missed beneath the tidal wave of word count.  Too often my impatience prevents me from discovering what it is my body and subconscious yearns to communicate.  

Learning to write beautiful sentences is about retracing my steps, peering into the crevices, picking out the tiny grains and questioning what it is that really lies in the palm of my hand.  Questioning what the ink of my fountain pen has pulled from my darker recesses. Slowing down.  Paying attention.  Listening.  Feeling. 

When I went searching for my favourite sentence I have written, one that would serve as an anchor, I couldn’t pick one out that satisfied. But instead of thinking of a favourite sentence as a completed thing, it is better if I think of it as a speck of sand that niggles and won’t be forgotten, a grain that irritates the mind to expansion and moves and grows through long formation/formulation to the pearl it promises to be.

Here is the sentence I chose as my anchor, for now anyway: We leave signatures of ourselves in flakes.

Some references I have found helpful: 

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg 

Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish 

Chapters on point of view from Ursula K LeGuin’s Steering The Craft and David Jauss’s On Writing Fiction.  

Essay: The Sentence is a Lonely Place by Garielle Lutz in Believer Magazine 

By Hand

I like to write by hand.  It took a while to build up the muscles in my fingers and my hand when I first started out because different muscles are being used compared to typing on a keyboard.  I was never very fast on keyboards anyway.  When I first started writing seriously, in a notebook, my hand cramped and the letters were large and loopy. Still, legible.

In high school, when my friends signed up for typing class (in those days it was on a typewriter), my father, who rarely weighed in on such matters, ordered: you will not take typing, you will take law. Turns out you can teach yourself to type fairly quickly…but it looks ugly…and I stare at the letter keys instead of the screen, dancing my hands backwards and forwards in what I’m sure is a most inefficient pattern. Ah well.  

Writing by hand is freeing in a way that typing on a keyboard isn’t.  A screen is a bordered two-dimensional space, whereas working with a physical page of paper, though still flat, I can draw arrows and pictures and write sideways or backwards or upside down, cramming words into a tiny shape in a margin, or expanding letters into a material emphasis. And there’s the advantage of seeing your progress: the pages slowly fill, front to back, and a page becomes a pile of pages and soon, a filled notebook.  It’s satisfying in a way that an icon of a file on your desktop could never be.  

But there’s another distinction I don’t quite understand, and it’s instinctual: writing by hand helps me to think differently as I create.  It’s as if my thinking is more three (even four?) dimensional.  On the computer, the sentences wind one after another linearly.  And the delete key gets more of a workout than my penned cross-outs.  I’m more forgiving of my “wrong direction thoughts” when I write by hand.  But that’s good, because often there’s something bubbling up from the subconscious when we write, and it might appear in the margins or beneath a cross-out line but can never recover the fatal depression of the delete key.  

Writing by hand is similar to drawing in many ways. 

Writing by hand matches the speed of my thoughts…I can transcribe my thinking more easily by hand. 

My husband’s uncle wrote a number of books, all by hand (transcription services were expensive, so one didn’t waste the money on a product that wasn’t quite finished).  He used a large room and placed his handwritten papers on tables around the room, physically shuffled them from corner to corner and often used scissors to cut and stick paragraphs into place with scotch tape.  I wonder if this physical immersion in one’s work enables you to know your work, your process and your progress differently.  Only one way to find out I guess…

William Faulkner disregarded his wife’s wishes and outlined his novel, A Fable (1954), on the walls of his study, handwriting directly on the paint!

Here’s a picture of Joseph Heller’s handwritten outline of his novel Catch 22