Thursday, June 23, 2011

Epstein, Joseph. "Heavy Sentences." THE NEW CRITERION (June 2011).

Fish, Stanley.  How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.  New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

Fish’s central key to good writing, his Open Sesame, is to master forms of sentences, which can be imitated and later used with one’s own content when one comes to write one’s own compositions. Form, form, form, he implores, it is everything. “You shall tie yourself to forms,” he writes, “and forms will set you free.”

By forms Stanley Fish means the syntactical models found in the sentences of good writers, or sometimes even in grabber lines from movies, or even interviews with movie stars: “If you want to see the girl next door,” he recounts Joan Crawford saying, “go next door.” He serves up John Updike’s sentence about Ted Williams’s last home run in Fenway Park—“It was in the books while it was still in the sky”—as a form that can be made use of in one’s own writing by wringing changes on the original. “It was in my stomach while it was still on the shelf” is Fish’s example of such a change.

Fish’s first bit of instruction is that one practice wringing changes on these forms, over and over again, as a beginning music student might practice scales. “It may sound paradoxical,” he writes, “but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.” He adds: “For the purposes of becoming a facile (in the positive sense) writer of sentences, the sentences you practice with should have as little meaning as possible.” Is this true? Taking the Updike sentence for my model, allow me to kitchen-test the method: “My toches was still in Chicago while my mind was in Biarritz”; “My mind was still in Vegas while my toches was in the Bodleian.” I fear it doesn’t do much for me, but perhaps I am too far gone for such warming-up exercises.

The larger point for Fish is that one learns to write
not by learning the rules [of grammar, syntax, and the rest], but by learning the limited number of relationships your words, phrases, and clauses can enter into, and becoming alert to those times when the relationships are not established or are unclear: when a phrase just dangles in space, when a connective has nothing to connect to, when a prepositional phrase is in search of a verb to complement, when a pronoun cannot be paired with a noun. . . .

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