Sunday, February 20, 2011

Minding a Writer's Sentence

In one section of her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about the importance of the sentence, citing in one instance, "Compressed into a single sentence is an entire way of life" (48). It's impressive to think that you can write a single sentence that contains a world. Prose suggests that this is done "through word choice, rhythm, and syntax" (51) and "first and most obviously clarity" (39). Rhythm and melody are nice, but they should all be harnessed toward the meaning. Being mindful when constructing sentences can have an overall impact on the success of the story.

Peter Orner echoed these sentiments when talking about the work of Andre Dubus (pronounced Duh-BYOOSE) II and pointing them out in the short story, "Leslie in California" from the collection, Selected Stories. Peter said that Dubus agonized over each sentence, wanting to make it perfect, and as the class looked at that particular short story, we could see the evidence. The last line paints a heartrending picture.
 "Soon the road will warm, and I think of rattlesnakes sleeping on it, and I shut the screen and look around the lawn where nothing moves."
Dubus could have chosen to break up the line into several sentences, but the cumulative effect, with all the commas, is much more powerful as we imagine the character taking in not just a few thoughts, but a lonely panoramic view. Like a camera, he zooms in and back from the road to the snakes, to the screen, to the woman looking back out at the lawn all in one sentence.

Dubus not only crafts each sentence, but gets to the deep emotional core of all of his characters, which is not always easy for the reader. He communicates the feeling of longing perfectly in several stories, such as in "The Fat Girl" and "A Father's Story." In "The Fat Girl" he does it in two sentences. The second sentence reveals several emotions and complicated relationships.
"In the summer before their senior year, Carrie fell in love. She wrote to Louise about him, but did not write much, and this hurt Louise more than if Carrie had shown the joy her writing tried to conceal."
The last part, "the joy her writing tried to conceal" lands squarely in the gut. Louise would rather share Carrie's happiness and be trusted to deal with her own emotions rather than be shielded because she doesn't have a love of her own. The reader also feels shielded, left out, which is one reason why Dubus's sentence works so well.

Prose writes that a sentence should be "economical," that all the words matter and that in a good sentence you neither should be able to take any out nor add in any (39). A sentence from Dubus that perfectly illustrates economy is from "The Fat Girl" (also in the same collection as "Leslie"), "Richard was a lean, tall, energetic man with the metabolism of a pencil sharpener." Dubus just could have said Richard was as tall and thin as a pencil, but that would not nearly be as funny, vivid, or clear. You can imagine lean Richard plowing through his food, grinding it up methodically.

Each sentence can paint a picture, provide suspense, present a mood, or show movement. From Dubus's "A Father's Story," here is a picture and a shifting distance, "Sometimes a rabbit comes out of the treeline, or is already there, invisible till the light finds him." The treeline is the background, the rabbit is the figure, the light is the movement our eyes share, the process of searching the area and finding that figure. There is a little jump between "comes out" and "already there" and "invisible" as we try to picture where the rabbit really is or if s/he is still hopping.

In Prose's illuminating book, she opens the reader's eyes to the details of reading and writing and the connections between them. She believes that good writing is the kind of writing that we want to take apart to see how it is constructed, "much the way a mechanic might learn about an engine" (36). Dubus's writing lends itself to that examination, and by doing so demonstrates his interest in the perfect sentence. Yes, all the words matter.

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