Thursday, September 02, 2010

Great Sentences


I've just finished listening to a 24 lecture series called "Writing Great Sentences." I enjoyed it a lot--'twas all about cumulative sentences, parallel construction, writing with double rhythms, triple rhythms, and "duple and triple rhythms," etc.

But I think my favorite lecture came at the end, and I have two thoughts to share. First, the professor (Dr. Brooks Landon) talked about "mythrules"--and I loved his word. According to Dr. Landon, "mythrules" are "rules that rule no one--other than perhaps a handful of pop-grammarians and hardened purists who lok for their authority somewhere in the sky rather than here on earth." (Quote from Edgar H. Schuster).

As I teach writing, I talk about a lot of rules . . . but I'm amazed when I hear about even more from my students. And I never mention a rule without prefacing it with the comment, "Nine times out of ten . . ." because no writing rule is absolute. But beginning writers tend to cling to rules as if they were some kind of magic wand, and by following them exactly, they'll somehow find their work publishable.

But excellence is a lot more than not breaking the rules. It's writing original material, with a fresh and unique voice, and too often the "rules" tend to whittle that voice away.

Dr. Landon suggests that writers "test" their rules by picking up a work by a good, published author and reading it. If they don't break the "rule," then it's probably a good idea that you follow it, too. But if they do break it, then don't sweat that particular rule.

Another comment that struck me was the idea that we've all been taught--in school, in seminars, etc--that clarity in writing is the number one priority, but whittling down our words to bare bones "drains style away." In the words of one writer, "the books" don't teach style--they abolish it.

So I'm going to be taking some more liberties in my own writing--trying out some long cumulative sentences, working on parallelism, contrasting duple and triple rhythms, and trying to come up with some new forms. I've learned about "crot" (a short, somewhat paragraph-like chunk of prose that functions more like a stanza in poetry) and "Grammar B", and I'm jazzed about entering the digital age and thinking that maybe we won't write in a linear fashion anymore. With hyperlinks available to us in digital formats, why not write in branching story trees? You could have dozens of story endings, depending upon which links were followed when.

I really liked this observation from Winston Weathers:

"I write for many reasons, to communicate many things. And yet much of what I wish to communicate does not seem to be expressible within the ordinary conventions of composition as I have learned them and mastered them in the long years of my education.

"What I've been taught to construct is the well-made box. I have been taught to put 'what I have to say' into a container that is always remarkably the same, that--in spite of varying decorations--keeps to a basically conventional form: a solid bottom, four upright sides, a fine-fitting lid.

"Indeed, I may be free to put 'what I have to say' in the plain box or in the ornate box, in the large box or in the small box, in the fragile box of in the sturdy box. But always the box--squarish or rectangular. And I begin to wonder if there isn't somewhere a round box or oval box or tubular box. If somewhere there isn't some sort of container 1) that will allow me to package 'what I have to say' without trimming my 'content' to fit into a particular compositional mode 2) that will actually encourage me to discover new 'things to say' because of the very opportunity a newly-shaped container gives me, 3) that will be more suitable perhaps to my own mental processes, and 4) that will provide me with a greater rhetorical flexibility, allowing me to package what I have to say in more ways than one and thus reach more audiences than one." --Winston Weathers An Alternate Style (1980)

Cool, huh?

So if you're a writer, go forth today and set yourself free to find your voice. Find your unique box--or tube or tree--and write away. :-)

~~Angie

6 comments:

Ruthie said...

Sounds like the writings of St. Paul...especially Romans...might fit into those long, paragraphical sentences, or cumulative sentences, that your lectures discussed. I would be interested to know how Dr. Landon would analyze them. The phraseology and construction of those super-long sentences have always fascinated me and I've wondered what they would look like in diagrammed form. I've been too afraid, though, to try diagramming them myself. Call it chicken, or perhaps I thought it might spoil the beauty of Paul's unique style.

Angela said...

Dr. Landon taught me to diagram sentences in an entirely different--and easier--way. You simply find the base clause, then list independent phrases under it. For instance (and I hope these indentations come out), you could write:

"The boy sat at the table, never knowing his father was in the next room, the father he'd never met, the man who'd wandered from Asia to Europe, the continents but a name on a map to the boy, a child who had never set foot in a schoolroom, in a city, or out of his own home."

So you'd diagram it like this:
The boy sat at the table
a) never knowing his father was in the next room
b) the father he'd never met
c) the man who'd wandered from Asia to Europe
g) continents but a name on the map to the boy
a) who had never set foot in a schoolroom, a city, or out of his own home.

At least I think that's right. :-/

Angie

Mocha with Linda said...

Interesting. But what I find disheartening is the regular poor grammar that is increasingly creeping into books today. Editors and authors are getting younger and schools are not teaching grammar anymore. I don't think my own kids know what a noun or an adjective is. So the advice that "writers "test" their rules by picking up a work by a good, published author and reading it. [And if] if they do break it, then don't sweat that particular rule." is going to be increasingly difficult to do.

There are kids' chapter books that have the "story trees" with different endings, allowing the reader to determine the direction of the story. Neither of my kids particularly like those books. It will be interesting to see how the trend develops.

Mocha with Linda said...

Oh, and I had an eighth grade teacher who loved grammar. We diagrammed sentences all year (and that was unusual even then; not many teachers were teaching classes to diagram). Our final exam was a 100-word sentence. We had to turn our paper sideways and really plan to get it all to fit in the proper place. It was such fun!

Barbara E Brink said...

I'm glad to hear someone said 'pick up a published author's book and see if they break the rule." I've seen so many rules broken and yet in conferences or classes it seems as though there is one set of rigid rules for the unpublished writer and freedom to do whatever for the published. No, I'm not bitter- just mystified at times:)

Kay said...

This beginning writer is a rebel. I haven't clung to a rule yet. :) But I have learned their value. Personally, I prefer to call them tools. Makes me feel less rebellious.

When that right brain test said I had no basis in reality, it actually had something to do with spurning rules. :)

These ideas are right up my INFP/right brained alley! :)