Sentence by sentence
To write a book about sentences may sound like overkill. Or a symptom of some strange obsession. Anyone reading a book ostensibly about sentences may be forgiven for thinking that the author’s intention was to lure them in with an intriguing idea and then soon enough, disclose his real purpose.
After all, most books, while not exactly about sentences, are at least composed of sentences. Surely, a book about sentences would be like reading a book on the architecture of great buildings and concentrating on the bricks. Or studying great works of art by focusing on the individual brushstrokes.
And, in effect, the close study of the brush stroke is exactly what Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing comes close to being. It’s also true that, while the title promises ‘several short sentences’, there are close to two hundred pages of sentences. Some short and some a little longer than would be traditionally considered short. But the focus never varies; the sentence and how a writer builds sentences is what this book is about.
Klinkenborg makes his purpose clear right at the start:
Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.
Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.
Part of the book’s charm is the almost poetry-style layout of the sentences and the way the sentences are grouped into stanzas of aggregated purpose, which gradually impose a hypnotic state of acceptance. Concentrating on the sentence affords a release from the tension of ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’. The paradox is, that with the focus on the individual sentence, meaning accrues by default. It need not be forced by the writer.
James Joyce knew about the importance of sentences. There’s a story that, during the composition — and there’s a word that suggests a more atomised approach to writing — of Ulysses, he met an acquaintance on a Zurich street. The man asked Joyce how his writing was proceeding. Joyce responded with enthusiasm, saying that he had had a very successful day. Expecting to be told that Joyce had turned out hundreds, if not thousands of words, the man asked why the day had gone so well. Klinkenborg would have understood Joyce’s response. Joyce told his acquaintance that he had swapped two words in a sentence that he had been working on for a week.
Ulysses took Joyce seven years to write. Sentence by sentence.
As Klinkenborg says (as if speaking to Joyce),
Your job as a writer is making sentences.
Your other jobs include fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.
If this is the case — making, fixing, killing, arranging — how can your writing possibly flow?
Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.
The feels counter-intuitive to many writers, who settle into the magic of scenes and beats and story and plot and character arcs. To focus on the sentence may also feel like being unmoored or drifting at sea far from the sight of land. But with each sentence, the promise of landfall is closer.
Trusting to the individual sentence is like finally accepting you can float in the water.