After reading Stanley Fish’s book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, I decided to do something that I’m usually too lazy to do; actually practice some of the exercises in the book. But first, the book.
There is what seems like an implausible expectation in the title. You might be thinking, okay, I can see how someone could write a book about how to read a book. There’s a lot of concepts, styles, theories, messages, meanings, etc., that one could spend ages deconstructing and studying how to consume each work. But to try and pull the stage curtain back on a single sentence? But Stanley manages to do so, and I can definitely say that, although the central dogma is the same for understanding anything on a higher level, I learned some new and helpful things. And that central dogma is reflection.
All of us have, at some point, stayed up late studying or reading for pleasure and arrived at the point where we’ve read the same sentence four or five times and never gleamed any meaning from it whatsoever. The words are nothing more than that, words. And at some point, we’ve all listened to a professor wax poetic for what seemed like hours about hidden meanings in obscure books, as we sat drooling from the corner of our mouths and wryly imagining that the author was still alive so they could burst into the room and scream at the pontificator of pomp that they never created a work where a tree was the metaphor for how a father treats his son. There is surely a safe and happy place between these two pointless points, one devoid of meaning and one bloated with pregnant apples just out of reach, where one can reflect on a book, paragraph, sentence, or even a word itself (in context), and not feel empty or pretentious. A reasonable amount of contemplation where we can achieve more than visceral pleasure without looking at every glass of water in the book as an element of baptism or birth.
Stanley Fish introduces us to the formula – Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation. If you write sentences, and then strive to understand them on a slightly higher level, you will appreciate them more.
The key is understanding the skeleton within each sentence. Once you understand this inner structure and can separate the framing from the interior decorating, you can then imitate great sentences by substituting your own fleshy content in place of the author’s. His first example is the beginning of Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky . This is the perfect separation of sentence structure and content:
Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.
You can understand the layout of the sentence enough to substitute your own words and have it make perfect sense.
Twas dusky, and ye slimy toads
did swim and paddle in the pond.
You get the idea. And you can do this with any sentence once you spend the time to break it down and really understand it. He makes it a careful point not to get too caught up in the whole parts of speech naming or pointing out every single literary term. The main point is how the different parts of the sentence relate to each other; the philosophy of the sentence. Stanley points out a few main types of sentences. Subordinate is a rigid approach that sets up expectations and then follows through. Additive is a more stream of consciousness approach, where you might move from past to present and back to the past, or even jump around subjects without warning. Satire is a style that promises one direction and then moves in another. You can pick a style that suites you, but the subordinate is the easiest to imitate.
I like this because it’s an algorithmic approach to literary creation that seems, to a lot of people, a great mystery. It’s a method by which, with nothing more than reflection and a few awkward starts, you can create sentences similar to your favorite authors. It’s not impossible.
I handed my wife a Virginia Woolf book called The Voyage Out, and she picked out this sentence:
Angry glances struck upon their backs.
Angry glances. Angry is specific, emotionally. It lies between peeved and hateful. Not fighting mad yet, but on the way. Glances is plural, which tells us right away that there are many people who are mad, not just one. And it’s a glance, not a stare, which would be confrontational. Instead, these people aren’t about to let whoever they’re glancing at know their emotional state. Struck. These glances are being delivered with physicality. Looks that leave whelps. Upon their backs. It’s more than one person absorbing ill will from this crowd. That’s a decent amount of information gleaned from a short sentence, and all we had to do was slow down and take a minute to really get at the essence of the sentence.
Then, you define the parts of the sentence, and substitute your ideas and words. My definition for this sentence is – something nonphysical, preceded by a description, acting physically on something else. Here is my wife’s first and very literal attempt because she really didn’t understand what we were doing (She was bored the minute I told her the name of the book).
Frustrated stares physically affected their heads.
And a funnier one:
Pissed off passersby provided them with pitiful attempts at provocative looks.
And my attempt:
Useless hopes bounced off her horn-rimmed glasses.
No awards imminent here. But you get the gist. It’s the practice that counts.
Here is another sentence taken from Victoria Laurie’s book Ghouls Gone Wild:
I’ve always believed in ghosts.
It’s a first sentence, and a good one. It’s short and hits you quick and strong, like a jab in a boxing match. There is no hesitation. I’ve. It’s in first person, so by definition, it’s personal. This is not something one screams to the people in a food court. It’s something you might tell a good friend or a small, close group of people you trust. The reader is already in a one-on-one with you. They are perhaps being let in on a secret. Always. Not sometimes. There is no room for doubt. Always believed in. This is something that has always been, and isn’t it harder to question things that have always been? This isn’t a statement you have time to negotiate with. In ghosts. So you know what’s coming. This isn’t a book about trolls, goblins, or sorcery. Ghosts are real, and you’re going to be seeing and believing in them pretty soon, if you don’t already. Ghosts. Plural. This isn’t one angry relative hanging around the kitchen table during dinners. They are many and everywhere.
The definition here, or structure, is a personal pronoun contraction followed by an adverb that connotes a definite history followed by what you’ve always done.
We’ve always swam barefoot in creeks.
I’ve never parallel parked a car in my life.
And so on. I surprised myself when I realized that a lot of kids today, myself included, already experience this type of algorithm every day without realizing it on the Internet. We’ve all seen a meme (Rhymes with seem). In its simplest form, it’s an idea that spreads. Here are two examples, the second one is mine:
You can see that it’s a skeleton concept, or structure, that you can fill in with your own content, or idea.
So my point is this – If a bunch of satirical Internet junkies in their pajamas can make us laugh everyday by using the same concept and changing the text, you can do the same thing with any sentence you love and create a perfect sentence of your own.