Category Archives: American Sentences

A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, American Sentences, Art, Desire, Education, Essays, Grammar, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Rationalizations, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Work

15 Specious Novel Openings

Psyche-and-Cupid-300x200A colleague sent me a list of famous opening lines from stories and novels—some usual suspects like “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and some I didn’t know, like “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, 1992) and “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, 1956). That last one, my colleague pointed out, was the only dialogue in “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.”

I’ve been ill this week and haven’t the concentration or will to write much, so I’m posting 15 opening lines for imaginary fiction. I’ve also supplied pretend titles and years to reflect styles of the time, and, yes, one uses dialogue. If you read a lot, you may recognize I’m parroting writers I’ve encountered.

Here goes:

1. He found nowhere to sit, which annoyed him, and the hammering conversation, laughter, synthpop, and his third gin and tonic compounded the headache that met him at the door. (Silverhair, 1985)

2. Sydney put his hat on the shelf in the coat closet and called his wife’s name. (Sydney Burroughs, 1938)

3. She wiped the blood from her finger onto her cheek and giggled. (Polly, 1971)

4. When Henry Stanbury cleared the mist within the carriage window with his ungloved hand, he discovered another layer of grey without, a city half-hidden in fog, and a few drifting souls making and breathing the steam of reluctant dawn. (Castle Palace, 1862)

5. The last thing to worry about, I’ve discovered, is finding something to eat. (The Farrier’s Promise, 2004)

6. There was a mole to begin with, but that was enough. (The Medical Expert, 1925)

7. I could have told you my brother lied about our parents and all the good they did for strangers because I grew up in the same house and watched them every morning put on masks and become strangers themselves. (Glad Is Your Reward, 1956)

8. “You must understand, lapshichka,” Grandpa would say, “no woman thinks first of the circus.” (The Beaten Road, 1978)

9. The noontime sun slanting through the jail window reached just his foot, and he dipped his toes into and out of the light considering (with no success) when in his drunk wandering he’d taken his shoe off. (The Coopers, 1948)

10. Our house blazed all night to neighbors’ oohs and aahs. (Miranda, 1996)

11. The screen door snapped shut behind him, and he turned to face a kitchen scene including Theodora Roos retching in the sink, her children spooning Alpha Bits into their maws, and Theodora’s husband Kenny reading or, more properly, shouting from a letter announcing the failure of their appeal and the imminent evaporation of all their hopes for a substantial settlement. (The Passage of Night Planes, 1966)

12. The bay stilled as the sun fell, and the city’s lights shone on its surface like jewels in gunmetal. (Pyroglyph, 1986)

13. Those well familiar with the affair counted it as indeed fortunate more damage to young Crosswick’s reputation did not accrue from his misstep, but Frederick Crosswick was not finished yet. (A Spring in Mercia, 1896)

14. I wasn’t there, but when I was twelve a boy named Otto who lived just down the block died when he fell from a tree and onto his bicycle. (Ithaca, 2009)

15. Every book begins by announcing itself—think of the blast of the ship horn and it’s done. (When the Moon Droops, trans. from Italian, 1989)

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Filed under Aesthetics, American Sentences, Art, Charles Dickens, E. M. Forster, Envy, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, J. D. Salinger, Kafka, Parody, Play, Reading, Revision, Satire, Saul Bellow, Teaching, Tributes, Voice, Writing

17 One-Sentence Stories

20080609_subdivision_900x600Another experiment in fiction…

1. He left his castle in the sandbox hoping someone might visit it.

2. It was a street added to tendrils in his imagination.

3. Their neighbor’s “hello” weaved past empty boxes stacked in the entrance hall.

4. Summer baked the pavement—heat rose as from a new hell beneath his feet.

5. The girl in the desk ahead glanced to the side, perhaps to look at him.

6. When he reread the note later, he knew he couldn’t give it to her.

7. The dance not even half-way over, he worried no slow songs remained.

8. Her mom called her in, but he stayed in the tree’s vee dreaming her echo.

9. His father stayed shut in his bedroom, and that winter seemed chiefly gray.

10. The red eye of the phone machine blinked, its endless notice persistent.

11. His best friend warned him no one wants to be known as one half of a pair.

12. The cellar door promised cooler darkness—they took the steps together.

13. They would drive separately along highways she’d marked in daisy yellow.

14. Memory is cruel and made him believe what is so was always so.

15. What if other lives cross into this one, creating alternate webs?

16. Amid everything strewn about, nothing seemed accidentally broken.

17. She did his laundry then left his bag wide open on their unmade bed.

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Filed under American Sentences, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Writing

Intermittence

par-intermittence-5846321. Sometimes I find myself staring and seeing nothing.

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2. Sometimes the pool of the world fills as from a spring pouring out of the last shovel strike.

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3. Sometimes the operations of my neighborhood—the trains and dog-walkers, the people loitering on stoops or shifting their weight as they stand beside locked cars—seem the working parts of a vast clock that only winds up.

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4. Sometimes a breeze turns as from some new impulse and urgency.

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5. Sometimes the moon seems to watch.

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6. Sometimes I have to close my eyes because fathoms-deep tides pull me under and, try as I might, their insistence is irresistible, the pleading voices of souls seeking company and solace.

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7. Sometimes, when walking seems new to children, I wait to see parents take their hands.

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8. Sometimes ice on the lake undulates the way the earth must during a quake, and, watching, I’m momentarily disoriented, my own legs wobbly.

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9. Sometimes, when a cold gust raises tears, I’m happy for the relief.

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10. Sometimes I imagine saving the sun from stampeding clouds.

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11. Sometimes the sun burns through the hardest ice.

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12. Sometimes unguarded people allow our eyes to linger.

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13. Sometimes, if my trip to work is full of images, sounds, and smells, they drown my thoughts and urge acquiescence and sacrifice.

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14. Sometimes snow flurries are so small and random, they remind me how much I long for mayflies.

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15. Sometimes I see empty storefronts, their windows expansive and vacant, gaping almost jealously at passers-by.

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16. Sometimes a shout from nowhere reminds me I’m really not alone.

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17. Sometimes people insist I listen.

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18. Sometimes I wonder if it might be a relief to be deaf.

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19. Sometimes branches move only when you watch.

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20. Sometimes cars lurch through intersections with visible resistance and sometimes they punch a new hole in that direction.

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21. Sometimes gray appears most of the world.

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22. Sometimes the parts of a broken glass seem to long for one another.

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23. Sometimes I do and don’t want more.

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24. Sometimes a flapping sail feels restless and sometimes reluctant.

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25. Sometimes my brain thirsts for color the way you want salt.

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26. Sometimes I forget the day started with my sitting on the edge of the bed willing myself to rise and silence the alarm and praying it might silence itself or, at least, only be part of a dream interrupted.

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27. Sometimes everything looks already made.

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28. Sometimes actors bow days after the show is over.

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29. Sometimes the sun’s exit is perfect.

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30. Sometimes sometimes doesn’t seem often enough and other times too often.

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Filed under American Sentences, Chicago, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Gesellschaft, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Modern Life, Place, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Urban Life, Voice

No-Count Sentences

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading haiku journals online and have discovered that the rest of the world has stopped counting syllables.  So, in writing my daily haiku, I’ve decided to stop too.  It’s hard, putting your fingers away after years of use, but I look more carefully at what, apart from form and convention, haiku are.

The beat poet Allen Ginsberg said he never understood haiku and preferred his own “American Sentences.”  He still counted—the sentences were supposed to be 17 syllables—but mostly he focused on the immediacy of a single observation.  In my journal, I’ve been experimenting with un-metered notions, jotting down thoughts I’d consider poetic instead of prosaic.

I’ve offered 15 prose poem-lets  below, each with its own title.  They are hardly polished or condensed—Mr. Ginsberg would disapprove—but I sometimes wonder what I sacrifice in editing.  Shortening them to 17 syllables might make them something else…

1. A THOUGHT BEFORE REALLY WAKING

The blackbird’s song holds a hole of night open and then squeezes it shut.

2. UNDER SCRUTINY

All the doors watch me, smug knowing where I’ve been.

3. THE HOTTEST DAY OF THE SUMMER SO FAR

By ten, we sweat coffee… but still can’t steer the air’s torpor.

4. DISTRACTED

The shadow of your chair: a creature tangled in mixed intentions.

5. MOMENTARY STATE OF ANXIETY

Words escaped from billboards gather outside town to shout us to silence.

6. WAITING FOR SOMEONE AT A PARK BENCH

Trees as ants see them—every road promises heaven, then splits and dwindles and splits and dwindles until it reaches an impossible shore of sky.

7. WAITING FOR SOMEONE AT A PARK BENCH (FIVE MINUTES LATER)

Maybe the trip down is better, merging until you enter the earth together and on one path.

8. STALLED CONVERSATION

You say you’ve had enough.  I can’t think of anything I’ve had enough of.

9. A. D. D.

A bird flying by a window reminds me how little I see.

10. RELIGIOUS THINKING ON THE L

Every train a little ark, all the world you might know.

11. DOZING ON THE L

As I neared sleep, I saw some graffiti-ed light inside my eyelids and thought, “Hey, who put that there?”

12. WISDOM AS A BODY

Everything has an elbow, something you can’t get near enough to know.

13. WATCHING A NATURE DOCUMENTARY ON THE SEA FLOOR

The rising puddles of air—maybe the dead are down there, hoping their voices will one day surface.

14. SUBJECTIVE OBSERVATION

Bells swing their hems, showing their asses, sounding the same note the same way to a world they assume adores them.

15. TROUBLE GETTING TO SLEEP

Why did you slip and say “Goodbye” instead of “Goodnight”?

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Filed under Allen Ginsberg, American Sentences, Chicago, CTA, Doubt, Experiments, Haiku, Home Life, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Writing