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The Sentence is a Lonely Place // by Gary Lutz

I came to language only late and only peculiarly. I grew up in a household where the only books were
the telephone book and some coloring books. Magazines, though, were called books, but only one
magazine eer came into the house, a now!long!gone photographic general!interest weekly
commandingly named Look. "ords in this household were not o#ten brought into play. $here were no
discussions that I can remember, no occasions when language was called #or at length or in bulk. "ords
seemed to be intruders, blown into the rooms #rom otherwhere through the speakers o# the teleision
set or the radio, and were easily, tinnily, ignorable as something alien, something not germane to the
#orlornities o# li#e within the house, and readily shut o## or shut out. %nder our roo#, there was more
diulgence and e&pressieness to be made out in the closing or opening o# doors, in #oot#alls, in coughs
and stomach growlings and other bodily ballyhoo, than in statements e&changed in occasional
conersation. "ords seemed to be a last resort' you had recourse to speech only i# eerything else
#ailed. (rom early on, it seemed to me that the #orming and the release o# words were the least
signi#icant o# the mouth)s actiities*and more by!products o# those actiities than the reason #or them.
"hen words did come hazarding out o# a mouth, they did not lastingly change anything about the
mouth they were coming out o# or the #ace that hosted the mouth. $hey o#ten seemed to hae been put
in there by some #orce e&terior to the person speaking, and they died out in the air. $hey were not
something I could possess or store up. "ords certainly weren)t inside me.
+ word that I remember coming out o# my parents) mouths a lot was imagine*as in I imagine we)re
going to hae rain. I soon succumbed to the notion that to imagine was to claim to know in adance an
entirely #orgettable outcome. + calendar was hung in the kitchen as i# to say' ,&pect more o# the same.
I thus spent about the #irst thirteen or #ourteen years o# my li#e not haing much o# anything to do with
language. I am told that once in a while I spoke up. I am told that I had a #riend at some point, and this
#riend o#ten corrected my pronunciations, which tended to be oerliteral, and deiant in their
distribution o# stresses. +ny word I spoke, o#ten as not, sounded like two words o# similar length that
had crashed into each other. "ord a#ter word emerged #rom my mouth as a mumbled mongrel. I was
o#ten asked to repeat things, and the repeated ersion came #orth as a skeptical ariant o# the #irst one
and was usually o##ered at a much lower olume. "hen a preposition was called #or in a statement, I
o#ten chose an un#itting one. I# a classmate asked me, "hen is band practice- I would be likely to
answer, +t #i#th period. I did not hae many listeners, and I did not listen to mysel#. $hings I spoke
came out sounding instantly disowned.
.hildhood in my generation, an unpiotal generation, wasn)t necessarily a witnessed phenomenon.
Large portions o# my day went unobsered by anyone else, een in classrooms. +nybody glimpsing me
#or an instant might hae described me as a kid with his nose stuck in a book, but nobody would hae
noticed that I wasn)t reading. I had started to graitate toward books only because a book was a kind o#
steadying accessory, a prop, something to grip, a simple occupation #or my hands. /Much later, I was
relieed to learn that librarians re#er to the books and other printed matter in their collections as
holdings.0 +nd at some point I started to en1oy haing a book open be#ore me and beholding the
com#ortingly 1usti#ied lineups and amassments o# words. I liked seeing words on parade on the pages,
but I neer got in step with them, I neer entered into the processions. I doubt that it o#ten een
occurred to me to read the books, although I know I knew how. Instead, I liked how anything small /a
pretzel crumb, perhaps0 that #ell into the gutter o# the book*that troughlike place where #acing pages
meet*stayed in there and was presered. + book was, #or me, an ac2uisitie thing, absorbing,
accepting, taking into itsel# whateer was dropped into it. +n opened book een seemed to me an
initation to practice hygiene oer it*to peel o## the rim o# a #ingernail, say, and let the thing #ind its
way down onto a page. $he book became a repository o# the body)s o##!trickles, e&trusions, biological
rubbish and remains3 it became a reli2uary o# sorts. I was thuswise now archiing chance #ragments,
sometimes choice #ragments, o# my li#e. I was putting things into the books instead o# withdrawing
their o##ered contents. +s usual, I had things backward.
"orse, the reading we were doing in school was almost always reading done sleepily aloud, our lessons
consisting o# listening to the chapters o# a te&tbook, my classmates and I taking our compulsory turns at
droning through a double!columned page or two3 and I, #or one, neer paid much mind to what was
being read. $he words on the page seemed to hae little utility other than as mere prompts or o#ten
misleading cues #or the sluggard sounds we were e&pected to produce. $he words on the page did not
seem to hae solid enough a presence to e&ist independently o# the sounds. I had no sense that a book
read in silence and in priate could o##er me something. I can)t remember reading anything with much
comprehension until eighth grade, when, studying #or a science test #or once, I decided to try making
my way 2uietly through the chapter #rom start to #inish*it was a chapter about magnets*and #ound
mysel# #orced to #orm the sounds o# the words in my head as I read. Many o# the words were un#amiliar
to me, but the words #izzed and popped and tinkled and bonged. I was reading so slowly that in many a
word I heard the scrunch and #lump o# the consonants and the peal o# the owels. Granted, I wasn)t
retaining much o# anything, but almost eery word now struck me as a proocatie hullabaloo. $his
was my #irst real lesson about language*this inkling that a word is a solid, something #irm and
palpable. It was news to me that a word is matter, that it e&ists in tactual materiality, that it has a cubic
bulk. 4nly on the page is it #lat and undensi#ied. In the mouth and in the mind it is three!dimensional,
and there are parts that shoot out #rom it or sink into its syntactic surround. 5ut this discoery was o#
no help to me in ,nglish class, because when we had to write, I could neer call up any o# the brassy
and racketing words I had read, and #ell back on the thin, #lat, de#ault ocabulary o# my li#e at home,
words spoken because no others were known or aailable. ,en when I started reading ocabulary!
improement books, I neer seemed capable o# importing into my sentences any o# the iid specimens
#rom the lists I had now begun to memorize. My writing was diidered #rom the arrayed opulences in
the ocabulary books. Language remained beyond me. My distance #rom language continued een
through college, een through graduate school. $he words I loed were in a di##erent part o# me, not
accessible to the part o# me that was re2uired to make statements on paper.
It took me almost another decade a#ter graduate school to #igure out what writing really is, or at least
what it could be #or me3 and what prompted this second lesson in language was my discoery o# certain
remaindered books*mostly o# #iction, most notably by 5arry 6annah, and all o# them, I later learned,
edited by Gordon Lish*in which irtually eery sentence had the #orce and #eel o# a clima&, in which
almost eery sentence was a iid e&tremity o# language, an abruption, a de#initie in2uietude. $hese
were books written by writers who recognized the sentence as the one true theater o# endeaor, as the
place where writing comes to a point and attains its ultimacy. +s a reader, I #inally knew what I wanted
to read, and as someone now yearning to become a writer, I knew e&actly what I wanted to try to write'
narraties o# steep erbal topography, narraties in which the sentence is a complete, portable solitude,
a minute immediacy o# consummated language*the sort o# sentence that, een when liberated #rom its
receiing conte&t, impresses itsel# upon the eye and the ear as a totality, an omnitude, unto itsel#. I once
later tried to de#ine this kind o# sentence as an outcry combining the acoustical elegance o# the
aphorism with the #orce and utility o# the load!bearing, tractional sentence o# more or less conentional
narratie. $he writers o# such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I #aored books that you
could open to any page and #ind in eery paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until
their #orms and contours and their organizations o# sound had about them an air o# haing been
#oreordained*as i# this combination o# words could not be improed upon and had #inished readying
itsel# #or in#inity.
+nd as I encountered any such sentence, the 2uestion I would ask mysel# in marelment was' how did
this thing come to be what it now is- $his was when I started gazing into sentence a#ter sentence and
began to discoer that there was nothing arbitrary or unwitting or #luky about the shape any sentence
had taken and the sound it was releasing into the world.
I)ll try to e&plain what it is that such sentences all seem to hae in common and how in #act they might
well hae been written.
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$he sentence, with its narrow typographical con#ines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place #or a writer,
and the temptation #or the writer to get out o# one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the
ne&t sentence is entirely understandable. In #act, the conditions in 1ust about any sentence soon enough
become /shall we admit it-0 claustrophobic, inhospitable, een hellish. 5ut too o#ten our habitual and
hasty breaking away #rom one sentence to another results in sentences that remain undeeloped parcels
o# literary real estate, sentences that do not #eel #ully inhabitated and settled in by language. 8o many o#
the sentences we con#ront in books and magazines look un#inished and proisional, and start to go to
pieces as soon as we gawk at and stare into them. $hey don)t hold up. $heir diction is o#ten not 1ust
spare and stark but bare and miserly.
$here is another way to look at this'
$he sentence is the site o# your enterprise with words, the locale where language either comes to a head
or does not. $he sentence is a situation o# words in the most literal sense' words must be situated in
relation to others to produce an enduring e##ect on a reader. +s you situate the words, you are o# course
intent on obeying the ordinances o# synta& and grammar, unless any will#ul iolation is your purpose*
and you are intent as well on achieing in the arrangements o# words as much #idelity as is possible to
whateer you beliee you hae wanted to say or describe. + lot o# writers*many o# them*
un#ortunately seem to stop there. $hey seem content i# the resultant sentence is #ree #rom obious #aults
and is #aith#ul to the lineaments o# the thought or #eeling or whatnot that was awaiting deathless
e&pression. 5ut some other writers seem to know that it takes more than that #or a sentence to cohere
and #lourish as a work o# art. $hey seem to know that the words inside the sentence must behae as i#
they were destined to belong together*as i# their separation #rom each other would deprie the parent
story or noel, as well as the readerly world, o# something li#e!bearing and essential. $hese writers
recognize that there needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do
with grammar or synta& but instead has to do with the ery shapes and sounds, the #orms and contours,
o# the gathered words. $his intimacy is what we mean when we say o# a piece o# writing that it has a
#elicity*a #itness, an aptness, a rightness about the phrasing. $he words in the sentence must bear
some physical and sonic resemblance to each other*the way people and their dogs are said to come to
resemble each other, the way children take a#ter their parents, the way pairs and groups o# #riends
eole their own manner o# dress and gesture and speech. + pausing, enraptured reader should be able
to look deeply into the sentence and discern among the words all o# the traits and characteristics they
share. $he impression to be gien is that the words in the sentence hae lied with each other #or 2uite
some time, decisive time, and hae deepened and grown and matured in each other)s company*and
that they cannot lie without each other.
6ere is what I beliee seems to happen in such a sentence'
4nce the words begin to settle into their circumstance in a sentence and decide to make the most o#
their predicament, they look around and take notice o# their neighbors. $hey seek out a##inities, they
adapt to each other, they begin to make ad1ustments in their appearance to try to blend in with each
other better and enhance any resemblance. 9retty soon in the writer)s eyes the words in the sentence are
all ibrating and destabilizing themseles' no longer solid and immutable, they start to #lutter this way
and that in play#ul receptiity, taking into themseles parts o# neighboring words, or shedding parts o#
themseles into the gutter o# the page or screen3 and in this process o# intimate mutation and
trans#ormation, the words swap alphabetary itals and iscera, tiny bits and dabs o# their languagey
inner and outer natures3 the words intermingle and blend and smear and recompose themseles. $hey
begin to take on a similar typographical physi2ue. $he phrasing now #eels literally all o# a piece. $he
lonely space o# the sentence #eels colonized. $here)s a sumptuousness, a roundedness, a dimensionality
to what has emerged. $he sentence #eels #illed in #rom end to end3 there are no acant segments along
its length, no pockets o# unper#orming or underper#orming erbal matter. $he words o# the sentence
hae in #act #ormed a united community.
4r, rather, i# the words don)t manage to do this all by themseles*because maybe they mostly won)t*
you will hae to nudge them along in the process. :ou might come to realize that a single owel
already present in the sentence should be released to run through the consonantal #rameworks o# certain
other prominent words in the sentence, or you might realize that the consonantal in#rastructure o# one
word should be duplicated in another word, but with a di##erent owel impounded in each structure.
:ou might wonder what would become o# a word at one end o# a sentence i# an a##i& were thrust upon
it #rom a word at the other end, or what might happen i# the syntactical #unction o# a word were shi#ted
#rom its present part o# speech to some other. +nd as the words reconstitute themseles and
metamorphose, your sentence may begin to make a series o# departures #rom what you may hae
intended to e&press3 the language may start taking on, as they say, a li#e o# its own, a li#e that contests
or trumps the li#e you had sponsored to lie on the page. 5ut it was you who incited these words to
shimmer and mutate and recon#igure een #urther*and what they now are saying may well be much
more acute and more crucial than what you had thought you wanted to say.
I think this is the only way to e&plain what happens to my own sentences during those ery rare
occasions when I am writing the way I want to write, and it seems to account #or how sentences by
writers I admire hae arisen #rom the alphabet. $he aim o# the literary artist, I beliee, is to initiate the
process by which the words in a sentence no longer remain strangers to each other but begin to
acknowledge one another)s e&istence and do more than tolerate each other)s presence in the phrasing'
the words hae to lean on each other, rub elbows, rub o## on each other, #eel each other up. +mong
contemporary writers o# #iction, there are #ew who hae regularly achieed what I am calling an intra!
sentence intimacy with more e&2uisiteness and grace than .hristine 8chutt, especially in her #irst noel,
Florida, and in her second collection o# short stories, A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer.
Let)s #irst look inside only a #our!word phrase o# hers.
In her story $he 5lood ;et, 8chutt ends a sentence about li#e a#ter a certain age by describing it
capsularly as acutely #elt, clearly #lat*two pairs o# words in which an aderb precedes an ad1ectie.
$he ad1ecties /felt and flat0 are both monosyllabic, they are both #our letters in length, and they both
share the same consonantal casing' they begin with a tentatie!sounding, de#lating f and end with the
abrupt t. In between the two ends o# each ad1ectie, 8chutt retains the l, though it slides one space
backward in the second ad1ectie3 and #or the interior owel, she moes downward #rom a short e to a
short a. $he predecessie aderbs acutely and clearly share the k!sounding c, and both words are
constituted o# irtually the same letters, e&cept that clearly doesn)t retain the t o# acutely. $he #our!
word phrase has a resigned and #inal sound to it3 there is more than a little agony in how, with 1ust two
little ad1ustments, felt has been diminished and transmogri#ied into flat, in how the richness o#
receptiity summed up in felt has been leeled into the thudding spiritlessness o# flat. +ll o# this
emotion has been deliered by the most ordinary o# words*nothing dredged up #rom a thesaurus. 5ut
what is perhaps most striking about the #our!word phrase is the #amily resemblances between the two
pairs o# words. $here is nothing in the letter!by!letter makeup o# the phrase clearly #lat that wasn)t
already physically present in acutely #elt3 the second o# the two phrases contains the alphabetic <=+
o# the #irst phrase. $here isn)t, o# course, an e&act, anagrammatic correspondence between the two pairs
o# words3 the u o# the #irst pair, a#ter all, hasn)t been carried oer into the second pair. /8chutt isn)t
stooping to recreational word games here.0 5ut the page!hugging, rather than page!turning, reader*the
ery reader whom a writer such as 8chutt enthralls*cannot help noticing that the second phrase is a
selectie rearrangement, a selectie redisposition, o# the #irst one*a declension, really, as i#, within the
erbal enironment o# the story, there were no other direction #or the letters in the #irst pair o# words to
go. $here is nothing random about what has happened here. 8chutt)s phrase has achieed the condition
that 8usan 8ontag, in her essay about the prose o# poets, called le&ical ineitability.
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5e#ore we turn our eyes and ears to the entirety o# a two!clause structure by .hristine 8chutt, maybe
we can agree that almost eery word in a sentence can be categorized as either a content word or a
#unctional word. $he content words comprise the nouns, ad1ecties, aderbs, and most erbs' they are
carriers o# in#ormation and suppliers o# sensory eidence. $he #unctional words are the prepositions,
the con1unctions, the articles, the to o# an in#initie, and such*the kinds o# words necessary to hold the
content words in place on the page, to absorb them into the synta&. $he #unctional words in #act tend to
recede into the sentence structure3 their isibility and audibility are limited. It)s the content words that
impress themseles upon the eye and the ear, so the writer)s attention to sound and shape has to be
laished on the e&posed words. $hey stand out in relie#. /9ronouns, o# course, do not 2uite #it tidily into
this binary system3 pronouns tend to be prominent when they are #unctioning as sub1ects or ob1ects and
tend to be shrinking when they are in a possessie capacity. +nd some common erbs*especially
those #ormed #rom the in#inities to be and to have*tend toward the unnoticeability o# operational
words.0
In .hristine 8chutt)s two!clause #ormation her lips stuck when she licked them to talk, the second
hal# o# a sentence #rom the short story :oung, the conspicuous content words are lips, stuck, licked,
and talk. $hese #our words are not all that aried consonantically. $he reappearing consonants are l and
k. $hree o# the #our words hae an l: two hae the l at the ery start o# the word /lips and licked0, and in
the #inal word /talk0, the l has slid into the interior. $hree o# the #our words hae a k in common*we
go #rom a terminal k /stuck0 to a k that has worked its way backward into the ery core /licked0 and
then again to a terminal k /talk0. In the #irst three words, the l and the k keep their distance #rom each
other' in the #irst two words, they don)t appear together3 inside the third word, licked, they are now
within kiss!blowing range o# each other oer the low!rising i and c that stand between them. In the #inal
word, talk, the l and the k are side!by!side at last*coupled 1ust be#ore the period brings the curtain
down. + romance between two letters has been enacted in the sentence' there has been an amorous
progression toward union.
$his kind o# #lirtation between two letters and their eentual matrimony brighten .hristine 8chutt)s
work not only in the indiidual sentence but in the paragraph as well. In the #our!sentence opening
paragraph o# the story $he 8ummer a#ter 5arbara .la##ey, in 8chutt)s #irst short!story collection,
Nightork, the characters k and spend the #irst three sentences dancing around each other and
sometimes tentatiely touching, but their intimacy neer gets more serious than the conentional
embrace they entertain in the #amiliar participle alking:
I once saw a man hook a walking stick around a woman)s neck. $his was at night, #rom my
mother)s window. $he man dropped the crooked end behind the woman)s neck and yanked
1ust hard enough to get the woman walking to the car.
Letters, o# course, are also known as characters, and it)s a courtship o# characters that is giing an
e&citement to these sentences. $he seems warily #eminine3 the k seems brashly masculine. In the
#ourth and #inal sentence o# the paragraph, the two characters mate and marry in the une&pected but
beauti#ully apposite participle inking, a union resulting in what is in many ways the most stylistically
noteworthy word in the paragraph. $hen the and the k disappear completely and completedly #rom
what is le#t o# the sentence as it plays itsel# out in a #ade!out se2uence o# prepositional phrases'
I saw this and saw rain winking in the yard in the light around our house.
"riting is rich to the e&tent that the drama o# the sub1ect matter is supplemented or deepened by the
drama o# the letters within the words as they inch their way closer to each other or push signi#icantly
o##.
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Gordon Lish*the enormously in#luential editor, writer, and teacher whom I mentioned earlier*
instructed his students in a poetics o# the sentence that emphasized what he called consecution' a
recursie procedure by which one word pursues itsel# into its successor by discharging something #rom
deep within itsel# into what #ollows. $he discharge can take many #orms and o#ten produces startling
outcomes, such as when .hristine 8chutt, in $he 8ummer a#ter 5arbara .la##ey, is seeking the
ineitable ad1ectie to insert into the #inal slot in the sentence 6ere is the house at night, lit up tall and
>>>>>>. "hat she winds up doing is literally dragging #orward the preious ad1ectie, tall, and using
it as the base on which #urther letters can be erected. $he result is the astounding, per#ect talloy*the
sort o# ad1ectie she neer could hae arried at i# she had turned a synonymicon upside down in
search o# words that capture the 2uality o# light.
Gordon Lish)s poetics #oreer changed the way I look at sentences, and so many o# the sentences that
thrill me are sentences in which consecution and recursion hae determined the sound and the shape o#
the community o# words. $ake the aphoristic sentence that closes <iane "illiams)s story 8cratching
the 6ead, in her second collection, Some Se!ual Success Stories "lus #ther Stories in $hich %od
&ight 'hoose to Appear: +n accident isn)t necessarily eer oer. $here is so much to remark upon in
this si&!word, #i#teen!syllable declaration. + sibilance hisses throughout accident, isn(t, and
necessarily) and in those three words there are #urther acoustical continuities*the ih sound moing
#orward #rom accident and into isn(t, the en sound moing #orward #rom accident and into isn(t and into
necessarily. In the #ie!syllable aderb necessarily, the owel!and!consonant pair ar o# the third
syllable receies the primary stress, and the ne o# the #irst syllable receies the secondary stress3 and
the e and the r o# those two syllables get #illiped #orward into ever, and then the dying #all o# that
aderb is echoed dyingly by over. *ver has morphed into over, o# course, with nothing more than the
substitution o# an o #or an e. $hese tumbly #inal words tumble out into a long owel, the only long
owel o# the sentence' the woe!laden, bemoaning long o. $he #inal syllable o# the sentence is
unstressed, and this unaccentedness depries the sentence o# a hard, clear!cut termination, much as the
import o# the sentence insists that an accident lacks de#initie #inality.
+ sentence that I hae spent an almost pathological amount o# time gaping at since the turn o# the
century, a sentence that always leaes me agog, is the opening sentence in 8am Lipsyte)s story I)m
8laering, in +enus Drive: ,,erybody wanted eerything to be gleaming again, or maybe they 1ust
wanted their eening back. $he paraphrasal content o# the statement in#orms us that high hopes #or a
return to a preious wealth o# li#e or #eeling are ineitably going to hae to be scaled back and reised
immediately and unconsolingly downward. I# you tweak the erb tense #rom the past to the present, the
sentence is een more sel#!containedly epigrammatic in its encompassing o# our shared predicament o#
disappointments. It)s a richly summational sentence, not the sort o# sentence you might e&pect to #ind at
the ery outset o# a story*but there are writers whose mission is sometimes to delier us #rom
conclusion to conclusion instead o# necessarily bogging us down in the #acts, the data, the sorry
particulars leading to each conclusion.
Lipsyte)s sentence is composed o# words that, in ordinary hands, are among the most humdrum and
pedestrian in our language' in the #irst hal# o# the sentence alone, the words #illing the sub1ect slots in
the independent clause and in the in#initie clause are the bland, heaily used inde#inite pronouns
everybody and everything. +nd the entire sentence is in #act completely lacking in speci#icity and so!
called literary or eleated language' there is no load o# detail, no erbal knickknackery whatsoeer*
there are no big!ticket words. $he only standout word, the participle gleaming, most likely was called
up into the sentence out o# bits and pieces o# the words preceding it*the ruling owel o# the entire
utterance /the long e0 and the !ing o# everything. :et this opening #lourish o# the story not only has both
sweep and circum#erence in its stated meaning, but it has a swing and a lilt to it as well. $he #irst hal#
o# the sentence is buoyant, up#loating. $he entire sentence has the chiming, soaring, .!chord long e)s in
everybody and be and gleaming and maybe and evening) it has the alliteratie ballast o# the b)s in
everybody and be and maybe and back, and o# the g)s in gleaming and again) and the only really closed
word in the mi& is the #inal word, the aderb back, which is shut o## with harsh consonants at either
end, especially the cruelly abrupt, terminal k, which #inishes o## the sentence and pushes it rudely down
to earth. $he last owel in the sentence is the minor!key short a in back*the only appearance in the
sentence o# the disappointed, de1ected ahhh o# crap and alas.
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8ome o# the most obious ways to ensure that the words in a sentence together create a community o#
sound and shape are too rarely discussed e&plicitly outside o#, say, high!school creatie!writing classes.
:et many great writers constantly aail themseles o# these little tactics to gie their phrasing both dash
and #inish. $he result is o#ten a sentence that looks and sounds #ul#illed, permanent. $hese phrasal
maneuers are concertedly eident in the e&amples I cited earlier, but they are worth considering
indiidually, because een though we are all well ac2uainted with eery one o# them, we too easily
#orget 1ust how much they can do #or us.
(or starters, make sure that the stressed syllables in a sentence outnumber the unstressed syllables. $he
#ewer unstressed syllables there are, the more sonic impact the sentence will hae, as in <on <eLillo)s
sentence 6e did not direct a remark that was hard and sharp. :ou can take this stratagem to
breathtaking e&tremes, as .hristine 8chutt does in her sentence =one o# what kept time once works.
8chutt)s sentence should remind us as well that we need not shy away #rom composing an occasional
sentence entirely o# monosyllabic words, as 5arry 6annah also does in I roam in the past #or my best
mind and 6e)s been long on my list o# shits in the world, and as 5en Marcus does in $hey were hot
there, and cold there, and some had been born there, and most had died.
$hose sentences illustrate another point' unless you hae good reason not to do so, end your sentence
with the wham and bang o# a stressed syllable, as in <awn ?a##el)s sentence 8he lied to marry late
and in ;ohn +shbery)s $here was I' a stinking adult. 8uch sentences stop on a dime instead o#
waering #orward #or a wishy!washy #urther syllable or two.
+t the opposite e&treme, gie #orce to your sentences by stationing the sub1ect at the ery beginning
instead o# delaying the sub1ect until an introductory phrase or a dependent clause has #irst had its
dribbling say. $his precept o# course iolates almost eery ,nglish!composition teacher)s insistence
that students ary the openings o# their sentences, but you will #ind the best writers disobeying it as
well. ?eaders hae o#ten attempted to account #or the e&traordinary cumulatie power in the work o#
;oseph Mitchell, who wrote literary 1ournalism #or the Ne -orker in a deceptiely plain and simple
style that o#ten achieed incantatory cadences. :ou can make your way through pages and pages o#
Mitchell)s work and almost neer #ind him starting a sentence without laying down his sub1ect at the
outset. Many #iction writers also skip the preambles, as <awn ?a##el does in her sentence 8he was
born in <ecember in 5araboo or thereabouts*small, still, blue, a girl, and, by some trick o# o&ygen,
alie.
$hat <awn ?a##el sentence, with its recurring b)s and l)s, illustrates another #orm o# play aailable to
any writer. +ail yoursel# o# alliteration*as long as it remains ungimmicky, unobtrusie, een
subliminal. 8uch repetition can be soothing and stabilizing, especially in a sentence whose content and
emotional gusts are anything but. :ou can let a single consonant dominate all or most o# a sentence*
the way <on <eLillo does with h)s in 6e was here in the howl o# the world, and as .hristine 8chutt
does with k sounds in 6e knew the kind o# @leene& crud a crying girl le#t behind. +nd the reiterated
consonants do not hae to appear at the beginnings o# words' they can also show up at the ery ends, as
the t)s do in 5arry 6annah)s sentence +h, well, what you cannot correct you can at least insult, or
they can be con#ined to the interiors o# words, as the l)s are in ,lizabeth 6ardwick)s sentence +nother
day she arried as wild and #lorid and thickly brilliant as a bird.
$ake adantage o# assonance as well. @eeping a single owel in circulation through most o# the
conspicuous words will gie a sentence another kind o# sonic consummation, as <on <eLillo achiees
with the #ie short a)s in 6e mastered the steepest matters in hal# an a#ternoon, and as 8am Lipsyte
does with three short u)s in :ou could touch #or a couple o# bucks. /+ lesser writer would o# course
hae been satis#ied with (or merely two dollars, you could cop a #eel.0 4r resere the assonance #or
the words in a sentence desering the greatest stress, as 5en Marcus does in $he ones that neer got
born were poured into the rier. :ou can een diide a sentence into two or more acoustical zones and
let a single owel preail in each zone. 6ere is a three!zone sentence by <on <eLillo' $here were
eening streaks in the white o# the eye, a sense o# blood sun.
:ou can make the most o# both assonance and alliteration in a single sentence or multi!sentence
se2uence. In the #ollowing two!sentence run, 8am Lipsyte assonates with the long oo sound and
alliterates with p)s and k sounds' <inner that night was some lewd stew I)d watched 9arish concoct,
undercooked carrots and pulled pork in ooze. I beliee he threw some kiwi in there, too. 8ome writers
take merged assonance and alliteration beyond slant rhymes or hal# rhymes /such as led, ste, and
oo.e in Lipsyte)s #irst sentence0 and een as #ar as a care#ul, unsingsongy kind o# internal per#ect
rhyming, in which the rhyming words end with an identical owel!and!consonant structure, as (iona
Maazel does in this sentence, which is acoustically uni#ied #urther by the repeated k sounds' I could
tell she had been crying #rom the swell o# her pores and the spackle crusted at the leees o# each eye.
+nd here are three samplings #rom the saddeningly neglected writer ,lizabeth 8mart, all #rom her
short!#iction collection, /he Assumption of the 0ogues 1 0ascals: $his cli##, I thought, this o##ice
block, would certainly suit a suicide3 $he long #all is appalling3 and the aphoristically molded, #ie!
word #ormulation God likes a good #rolic. In the last o# these three sentences, there are all sorts o#
#amily resemblances among the words' the identical consonantic shells o# %od and good /as well as o#
like and the second syllable in frolic0 and the shared owel o# %od and frolic. +nd the way the words
hae been arrayed gies the sentence its aphoristic permanence. $he article a, at the center o# the
statement, separates two phrases ery similar in shape, with the words in the second phrase, good
frolic, appearing as enlargements o#, and elaborations on, the words in the #irst pair' %od likes.
$here are still #urther opportunities #or you to put some play into your phrasing. 9ress one part o#
speech into serice as another, as <on <eLillo does in 8he was always maybeing /an aderb has
been recruited #or duty as a erb0 and as 5arry 6annah does in "esty is colding o## like the planet
/an ad1ectie has been enlisted #or erbi#ied purpose as well0. + ariation is to take an intransitie erb
/the sort o# erb that can)t abide a direct ob1ect0 and put it in motion as a transitie erb /whose ery
nature it is to enclasp a direct ob1ect0. $hat is what (iona Maazel is up to with the erb collide, which
abandoned all transitie use ages ago, in her sentence 4#ten, at the close o# a recoery meeting, as we
make a circle and 1oin hands, I)ll note the odds o# these people #inding each other in this group3 our
sundry pasts and principles3 the entropy that collides addicts like so many molecules. 4r take some
standard, oerworked idiomatic phrasing*such as It turned my stomach*and trans#igure it, as
5arry 6annah does in I saw the hospital in 6awaii. It turned my heart. 4r rescue an ordinary,
oertasked erb #rom its usual drab business and #ind a #resh, bright, and startling conte&t #or it, as <on
<eLillo manages with speaks in :ou will hit tra##ic that speaks in 2uarter inches and as 5arry
6annah does with the almost always lackluster erb occurred in A a single white wild blossom
occurred under the #oreer stunted #ig tree.A :ou can also choose to pre#er the une&pectable noun, as
<iane "illiams does with history in "e can come in out #rom our history to lie down and as 8am
Lipsyte does with s2ueaks in 6ome, we drank a little wine, put on some o# that sticky sa&ophone
music we used to keep around to drown out the bitter s2ueaks in our hearts. 4r you can choose a
ariant o# a common word, a ariant that e&ists o##icially in unabridged dictionaries but has #allen out
o# usage*i#, that is, you hae reason enough #or doing so. In (iona Maazel)s sentence $his was not
how I had meant to act, all tough and abradant, not only does the un#amiliar ad1ectie abradant, with
its harsh d and t, sound more abrasie than the milder, eeryday abrasive, but its terminal t has been
bookended with the initial t o# tough, lending symmetry to the ad1ecties coupled at the sentence)s end.
+nd you can take the #rumpiest, the ugliest o# the so!called ocabulary words*the Latinate
monstrosities that students are compelled to memorize in 8+$! and G?,!preparation classes*and urge
them into a casual setting, where they #inally shine anew. (iona Maazel pulls this o## in her sentence
$he #loor tiles appeared cubed and motile. $he choice o# the unusual sentence!ending ad1ectie,
which in other conte&ts might risk coming across as thesaurusy and pretentious, most likely resulted
#rom the writer)s unwaering alertness to the alphabetics o# the noun in the sub1ect slot o# her sentence.
$he upshot o# this morphological correspondence between tiles and motile is that the sub1ect)s embrace
o# its second ad1ectial complement is much stronger than that which would be achieed by the two
words) merely syntactic #unctions alone. (inally, you can #ool around een with prepositions.
9repositions o#ten attach themseles aderbially to erbs and thus #orm what are known as phrasal
erbs, such as check out and open up and see through, but you are not legally bound to use the
orthodo& preposition with a erb. <on <eLillo breaks #rom established usage in the sentences 8he was
always thinking into tomorrow and 8he moed about the town)s sloping streets unnoticedA playing
through these thoughtsA.
Granted, there can be a downside to the kinds o# isolatie attentions to the sentence I hae been
adocating. 8uch a #i&ation on the indiidual sentence might threaten the enclosie #orces o# the larger
structure in which the sentences reside. 9sychiatrists use the term eak central coherence to pinpoint
the di##iculty o# certain autistic persons to get the big picture, to see the #orest instead o# the trees. +
piece o# writing consisting ultimately o# an aggregation o# loner sentences might well strike a reader as
stupe#yingly discontinuous, too dense to enchant. 5ut the practices I hae been trying to discuss can
also result in richly elliptical prose whose indiidual statements conerge e&citingly in the participating
reader)s mind. $hese practices account in part #or the bold poetry in some o# today)s most artistically
proocatie #iction.