Sunday, August 02, 2020


The experts say “polish your writing.”  They say “write what you know.”  They say “write for the reader, not yourself.”  What are they talking about?

The architecture of writing is a thing no one can see or spell, but rather something deeper, an abstract.  But my first lesson in writing in these terms was in the 7th grade and you could see it: it was sentence diagraming, the dissection of sentences into little schematics.  In English a main horizonal line is occupied by the kernel: the subject and the verb, thus:  underlined subject/verb.  In fact, it might only be the verb.  A command might be a one-word sentence:  “Stop.”  Or “Go.”

Here are addresses for two of the many explanations and examples you can find on GoogleYouTube also has a surprising number of sentence outlining posts with visual whiteboard prompts just like a classroom.

I learned the basics in 7th grade with a handsome young teacher who got into trouble with the girls in the class by flirting with them, married the kindergarten teacher and became a dentist, so you see it’s not a stodgy sort of subject.  In fact, it lends itself well to competition and I put in extra energy by trying to top Art Schmidt, who became an esteemed minister.  By the time I had gone to seminary, he had become the leader of the Clinical Pastoral Care movement.  I hope he forgave my attempts to beat him at the blackboard.

Even though I got pretty good at diagrams, particularly after 8th grade with Miss Agnes Carter, ancient bow-legged Catholic guardian of propriety, who required us to memorize the linking verbs and the prepositions, to underline all prepositional phrases, and therefore to reveal either the dynamic or existential verbs.  Of course, at that age we didn’t look at it that way.  But my class, which still meets back in Portland, can still recite those lists.

I didn’t really “get” what was going on until I took writing from Richard Stern, a writer’s writer, at the U of Chicago which allows a person to escape their majors occasionally.  He finally brought it home to me that the reason for awareness of these pieces is to be able to meaningfully control the sequence of words in a sentence.  I wrote my sentences inside out.  Forty years old and no one had told me that.  The “right” order is partly a matter of what one’s culture thinks is most important and partly from considering what the reader needs to know first — as well as what the really important part is and what the pay-off conclusion or disclosure should be and where it should go.  

I highly recommend any sentence composing books by Don and Jenny Killgallon Amazon carries dozens of books on the subject.  I would not be embarrassed to start with the versions meant for elementary students.

After I participated in a workshop with Peter Matthiessen, I read everything I could about how he wrote.  He was an almost obsessive sentence structure composer, writing and rewriting as he thought about which were minor and which were major points about his subject.  He made prepositional phrases into adverbs or participles, used gerunds to clarify a word, removed whole subordinate clauses to expand in another sentence.  

More than that Matthiessen went out into the world of humans and animals, especially the unknown ones, and into Buddhism so that he had a wealth of experience to draw on, vivid details and well-explored concepts.  He could add or subtract resourcefully. This struggle to write the perfect sentence was invisible, but the result was easy to read.

Another lesson at that workshop was about metaphorical language.  I had written about bison, because Bob and I participated in the annual roundup, and I said they had purple mouths like chow dogs.  Matthiessen agreed that this was true, but he said that an animal as majestic and powerful as a buffalo should not bring to mind a dog, even one as formidable as a chow.  

This was a seminar workshop of select people.  One young man said he couldn’t understand this — both animals had purple mouths, didn’t they?  He relied on facts.  PM patiently tried to get him to understand the penumbra of associations around every word and the importance of paying attention to them because of where they took free-associating minds.  Later this boy challenged my description of bison seen from the top.  They are managed at sorting-time in corrals from catwalks above them where one could see they are tall but narrow, which accounts for them being able to turn quickly, although from the side they imply the width of beef cattle, which are nearly square, truly monumental dimensions.  He had never seen a bison from above and I couldn’t convince him, but PM could.

This brings up the issue of writing for a specific audience, not just in terms of sentence composing, but in terms of using unique jargon and knowledge.  It is not forbidden to do that, but the knowledge needs to be managed so it’s expected and welcome.  Recently, Robert Macfarlane has been a major success with his search for and revival of old words from quiet parts of Britain, like “Landmarks”.  since I write about land so often, once in a while I use a geology dictionary.  Some theatre terms have become widely known like “seeking the spotlight.”  

Impossible to organize what isn’t known.

The most valuable exercise in any text I used was this one:

1.  Sit quietly for a long time considering your subject, just letting the images and memories come.

2.  Write about the subject two specific sentences for each of the five senses about the subject.

3.  Chose one of each of the five sentences and organize them into a paragraph.

4.  Compose a last sentence summing them up.

Sometimes I would make the class write these paragraphs so they added up to a certain number of words. The idea was to consider composing alternatives to get there.  That was before Kelly Grissom — or was it Mike McKay —gamed the system by writing about a picnic.  After a bit about what was to eat, he wrote, “Then came the ants:  one ant, two ants, three, ants . . .”  until the number of ants added up to the word count required.  He got me!

This is about the mechanics, the craftsmanship of writing.  My content aspect needed the kick in the slats that freed me from pop loops and elegies.  That came from the beneficently terrifying Tim Barrus.  But that’s another post.

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