The moment I saw the little blurb on Stanley Fish’s new book, How To Write a Sentence in my favorite mag, Writer’s Digest, I scurried to my computer to pre-order it. It wasn’t even out on shelves yet and I knew I had to have it.
Before you scratch your head in wonder, I DO know how to write a sentence. I actually cracked that nut a while back. But there is a staggering difference between a sentence that captures the senses and one that is just a little salad of subject, object and action. “See Jane run” is a sentence but I don’t see Jane at all. There is a way to show us in words Jane’s panicked gasping as she flees the vampire or her breathless joy as she dashes into the arms of the soldier she thought was dead. There is more to Jane’s running than her moving feet. This is why we need little books like this one to help us figure out how to convey it with style.
The book is a quick read, concise and complex at the same time – well done, Mr. Fish, and I found myself running around to find my highlighter whenever I happened to be reading the book in a room where the highlighter was absent. Many gold nuggets in here, starting from the first chapter. Fish invites us into his world of wisdom with this:
“Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nestled in the places ‘ordained’ for them – ‘ordained’ is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of synaptic structures- they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another . . . they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject or refine.”
I admit I shuddered when I got to Chapter Two. There were a few moments of tense hyperventilation as I considered Fish’s pronouncement that Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is deficient (gasp!). But as I focused on my breathing and read on, I saw his point. Form (Strunk and White) is only architecture. The building still has to be beautiful for me to want to live there. From Chapter Two:
“Alone is just a word, a part of speech clustered in a category; it looks over other words it would like to have a relationship with (it’s almost a dating relationship) but has no way of connecting with them. And then a verb shows up, providing a way of linking up noun to adjective, and suddenly you have a sentence, a proposition, a little world.”
A little world. Oooh. Love that, too.
My favorite chapters, now glistening with yellow ribbons of highlighted text, are “First Sentences” and “Last Sentences.” They are brimming with examples from the classics as well as modern-day gems. They are chapters to savor, to read again, to ponder. From pg. 100:
“There is no formula for writing a first sentence, for the promise it holds out is unique to the imagined world it introduces, and of imagined worlds there is no end.”
First sentences woo us onto the dance floor, last sentences are “heirs of the interest that is generated by everything that preceded them.” The last sentence tells us why the dance mattered and whether or not we can or should expect another one. And sentence artists (that would be me and my writing colleagues) must do something more memorable with those last words than to figuratively bow to our partner and mumble, “thanks for the dance.”
Here’s to making you, the reader, ask me “Please, please, please let us dance again. I don’t want to go back to my chair by the punch bowl. I want to dance, dance and dance . . . “
I’ll be reading this one again. I need to improve my waltz.
And lest you think this book is only for writers, I hasten to add the subtitle for “How to Write a Sentence” is “And How to Read One.”
So. Shall we dance?