Article Review: “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”

I have fallen behind in my magazine reading, as I do every year, despite vowing every New Year’s Day that this year I will keep up. As a result, I just ran across this article based on a lecture by Gary Lutz in the January 2009 issue of the Believer.

In “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place,” the short-story author and professor of English and composition at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg marvels at sentences that sing and then deconstructs their melodies. He talks with a delightful vocabulary about words that “fizz” and “pop” and “tinkle” and “bong,” “the scrunch and flump of the consonants and the peal of the vowels,” then methodically traces consonant and vowel sounds over the course of phrases as few as four words long. His prose is passionate and inspirational—consider this excerpt, just one of many similarly insightful passages:

… [T]he words inside the sentence must behave as if they were destined to belong together—as if their separation from each other would deprive the parent story or novel, as well as the readerly world, of something life-bearing and essential. … [T[here needs to be an intimacy between the words, a togetherness that has nothing to do with grammar or syntax but instead has to do with the very shapes and sounds, the forms and contours, of the gathered words. This intimacy is what we mean when we say of a piece of writing that it has a felicity—a fitness, an aptness, a rightness about the phrasing. The 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 after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech. … The impression to be given is that the words in the sentence have lived with each other for quite some time, decisive time, and have deepened and grown and matured in each other’s company—and that they cannot live without each other.

—then breaks down specifically how to accomplish this, letter by letter, using samples by Christine Schutt, Barry Hannah, editor Gordon Lish, and Don DeLillo.

Actually implementing Lutz’s recommendations sounds intimidating, if not downright crippling. One wonders whether these authors did indeed craft their prose at the microscopic level he describes, suspecting instead that such composition is a more instinctual, organic process. Still, deliberately incorporating such strategies in even a single sentence will invigorate and inform all of your sentences.

Here are the CliffsNotes of Lutz’s findings:

  • Have more stressed syllables than unstressed in your sentence.
  • End your sentence with a stressed syllable.
  • Start your sentence with the subject rather than delaying it with an introductory phrase or dependent clause.
  • Use alliteration, “as long as it remains ungimmicky, unobtrusive, even subliminal.”
  • Use assonance, too—i.e., the repetition of sounds, especially vowel sounds, inside words.
  • Use alliteration and assonance in the same sentence or over several sentences.

To take your writing to the next level, try these strategies as well:

  • Use one part of speech in another part of your sentence, like a noun for a verb: “She was always maybeing.” (DeLillo)
  • Give an intransitive verb a direct object: “Often, at the close of a recovery meeting, as we make a circle and join hands, I’ll note the odds of these people finding each other in this group; our sundry pasts and principles; the entropy that collides addicts like so many molecules.” (Fiona Maazel)
  • Revive a tired idiom with fresh phrasing: “It turned my stomach” versus “It turned my heart.” (Hannah)
  • Use a familiar verb in an unexpected context: “You will hit traffic that speaks in quarter inches.” (DeLillo)
  • Choose unexpected nouns: “We can come in out from our history to lie down.” (Diane Williams)
  • Use a variant of a common word that has fallen out of usage: “This was not how I had meant to act, all tough and abradant.” (Maazel)
  • Flex your vocabulary with SAT words: “The floor tiles appeared cubed and motile.” (Maazel)
  • Swap out prepositions: “She was always thinking into tomorrow.” (DeLillo)

Apply Lutz’s advice to one of your sentences, and let Mots Justes know how it goes by leaving a reply.


1 Comment

Filed under books on writing, writing

One response to “Article Review: “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place”

  1. paperbackjack

    I love this kind of close reading. Part of my masters thesis hinged around the use of the word ‘and’. Punctuation is something I like to analyze too. I’m a huge fan of DeLillo’s ‘liberties’ with language (even though I feel he may be quite unfashionable right now). When I heard him reading from ‘Underworld’, the sense of the Bronx really came out in his rhythms and suddenly the prose shrugged off any difficulties — skipped and jabbed with the punchy movements of a boxer. I agree with much of what Lutz says here and feel it comes easily with practice. Similar to how a tennis player can learn to read the ball at incredible speeds. It’s slipped down to unconscious navigation. Writers clearly do work in this way. Think of the opening to ‘Lolita’. Thanks for sharing this, it’s a real treat!

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