As a young writer I aspired to write sentences like Henry James: long and beautifully elaborated, spinning out subtle, complicated perceptions. At the time I was trying to write fiction and attended classes taught by Marguerite Young (most famously, author of the novel Miss Mackintosh, My Darling), who gave us a terrific exercise:
- Write a sentence at least a page long. You can use semicolons, dashes, whatever punctuation you want, but it has to be grammatical and it has to keep going.
This exercise had amazing effects. The effort to continue the sentence forced you to push your ideas way beyond what you had originally conceived. People developed wild, intense elaborations of character and action. And through the rhythms that occurred within their sentences, they discovered their own original voice.
What Marguerite didn’t teach, though, was discipline (Miss Mackintosh is over a thousand pages long). Many students’ work became so fantastically detailed that it contained no action. One woman sent a character to Haiti. She spent an entire semester getting the man off an airplane and down a street, since everything he thought, felt, remembered, and observed became part of his interior monologue. I myself began a novel, based on my years working for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, that allowed me to fully indulge my Jamesian ambitions. It became truly encyclopedic, aiming to encompass practically everything I knew. Ultimately it died of its own weight.
Later on I realized that my true bent was for literary nonfiction focused around an image. The image gave the book a unity and also functioned as a mode of analysis. My first published book, The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness, used the image of the witch. It contained lots of long Jamesian sentences, which the copyeditor cut in half. My initial reaction was fury and resentment. Then I realized they read better that way.
Gradually it dawned on me that people don’t want to read long sentences. I began writing for a living, and my sentences got shorter and shorter. The coup de grâce for Henry James came when I learned to write for the web, and had to put most content into bulleted lists. By now short sentences feel normal. I don’t need long ones in order to be “literary.” All that work in the trenches has grounded me.
Causes Stephanie Golden Supports
Insight Meditation Society, Barre, MA
Brooklyn for Peace
New York Insight Meditation Center
Coalition for the Homeless