where the writers are
A Collection of Sentences


My friend collects rare coins that dazzle and sparkle in her red leather album.

I collect stunning sentences. I've got sketchbooks full of sentences that sing and cast a light on days when my sentences resist or turn awkward.

Sometimes before I begin writing, I'll open my journal and hear the music of language and let myself marvel. How simple! How complex! Letters on paper turn into words turn into associations, into sounds, like music boxes.

The streets were empty, the slates shone purple. Sean O'Faolain, I Remember! I Remember!

Everyone was beautiful, and gentle, everyone was poor, no one was smart. One summer evening they danced in the half-light, and when they were tired of dancing they lay down in the forest, on the beach, on mattresses, on the bare floor. Stephen Spender, "September Journal."

Lately, I've done as Stanley Fish suggests in his book, How to Write a Sentence: analyze a sentence and try to match it. That is, understand its formal structure and then fill the structure in with alternative words. You don't need to know grammatical terms to do this; what you need is an understanding of the logic and rhetoric used by the stunning sentence-the relationships between actor, actions and objects acted upon.

For instance:

If she stumbles, she is not aware of it because she does not know where her body stops, which part of her is an arm, or foot, or a hand. Toni Morrison, Beloved.

Morrison begins with a three word subordinate clause, "if she stumbles," moves to her base or independent clause, then follows with three additional dependent clauses beginning with "because"... "which" ... "or."

And here's my attempt to use the form:

If I answer, I may guess wrong because I wasn't paying attention to Mrs. Storsley and her lecture about worms, which seemed to involve her face pinching and contorting, or at least her voice turning shrill, like a sharp whistle.

As Wordsworth wrote, "Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room." What he means is that limitations rather than confine can expand. You relax into the confined space of a sentence form and let yourself create a sentence that you never knew you had inside.