I unloaded my little gathering of groceries on the conveyor belt. I’m usually at the market early in the morning, which is Lisa’s shift, and over the years we’ve had the same conversation, except today it isn’t the same.
“What are you reading?” I said.
The store was, for the most part, empty—no one standing in line, glancing at a watch, tapping an anxious toe—and so we could indulge in a long discussion about whatever books we’re reading. What is compelling? What holds your attention? What’s different? Unique? And always at the end, as if we were saving the most important for the end: Would you recommend it?
“Nothing,” she says. “I put the book down.”
“I don’t know.” She rings up my carton of eggs. “The sentences. They were just so… flat.”
Ah, yes. In this age of information, where words—sometimes not even words, but the suggestion of a word—serve as conveyor belts of facts and advertisements, can anyone craft a sentence that fills the brain with hyperbolic joy? Something that breaks up the crushing barrage of workhorse prose? A sentence that veers from the traditional subject-verb linear line to make us see anew?
Gustave Flaubert lamented his rich inheritance of writing; he could not, like the early writers of long ago, write unconsciously, without style. He agonized, he labored, he fretted over a sentence, that “atrocious labor.” That was the 19th century. How vast our library of style has become since then! Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Woolf, Nabokov, Joyce…
Readers, of course, have also been the beneficiaries of extraordinary sentences. They know that a good story can be paired with beautiful writing, and when it isn’t, why not put the book down and find one that does? And so, Donald Maas says in Writing 21st Century Fiction, “High impact comes from a combination of two factors: great stories and beautiful writing.”
I happened to come across a box of my old notebooks from my junior high years. Peppered in with the typical angst of a teenage girl (does he like me? do I like him?) are sentences from Austen, Emerson, Dostoevsky, Pasternak. From way back, I’ve been an admirer and collector of stunning sentences—sentences that transported me, illuminating a dimension of existence that I sensed, but didn’t know was true until I read it.
My love affair with the sentence continues. One of my favorite classes to teach is Style in Fiction, because we get to swim around in one extraordinary sentence for an inordinate amount of time; because we can take sentences apart and see their inner workings; because we can use the same architecture to create longer prose; because of how much better the day is when you hear a beautiful sentence singing in your ear.
So here’s the first column dedicated to stunning sentences. Think of it as an applause, of sorts, for the technical achievement and a chance, through contemplation, to fashion your own fine—or even great—sentences.
Aaron Shurin’s book of essays, King of Shadows, is bubbling over with stunning sentences. A poet and an essayist, the author of 11 books of poetry and prose and handfuls of awards, Shurin’s poetic sensibilities are everywhere in King of Shadows. In “Dahlias,” Shurin heads to Miss Hendrix’s second grade class to teach poetry.
Then they turned their shining faces up to me—quizzically, or with pride, or just compositional pleasure—and I was flooded with that light they emit, something willing and bright, that lit me, and for which I still hunger, unsatisfied.
Shurin has led the children through a poetry lesson and they’ve written their own poems. Their young faces are turned up to him. And then the sentence slows down by veering off with a parenthetical as Shurin decodes their expressions—there is pride, pleasure and also doubt. Is it poetry?
I am fortunate to know Aaron—a kind, generous, thoughtful man—so I call him.
“It was a quick moment, but I wanted to use the parenthetical to give us a moment to look at their faces. They were transformed by writing poems. They felt they were artists and they also weren’t sure. The parenthetical also suspends the moment, so I can get hit by their light.”
Shurin is flooded with light, and he suspends the moment again by lingering on the light, “willing and bright.”
“The making of art releases the light,” says Shurin, “then enlightens me.”
The last part of this sentence—“and for which I still hunger, unsatisfied”—sweeps wonderfully across time, from that moment in the classroom to now.
“I wanted to move out of that particular time and space because I knew the essay was going to move elsewhere,” says Shurin. “I also wanted to deepen what happened in the classroom. It wasn’t confined to that moment. The trajectory of the sentence is complicated by this last phrase: though it projects forward into the future, it also turns back on itself because the moment becomes a memory: I am simultaneously in the scene and looking back at it. So it’s not just a moment—it becomes a lasting event of the heart and mind.”
The sentence is the pivotal moment in the essay. It changes Shurin and ultimately provides the metaphor, which becomes the subject for the rest of “Dahlias.” The next sentence is: “Later I said to myself, I said to my friends, “They turned their little faces to me like flowers.”
Shurin says when writing sentences, he pays close attention to the complex rhythm, the relationship between verb and subject, the relationship of the clauses to the trajectory of the main argument of the sentence: “The way the simple transaction of the sentence gets further complicated into orchestral parts by punctuation.”
“How do you hear the rhythm?” I say. “Do you read it out loud?”
“Always. Always. It’s not complete until I do. The reading out loud will register for me the accuracy or falseness of the footprint.”
I asked Aaron to pick his favorite sentence from the book. He directs me to the essay, “In the Bars of Heaven and Hell.” In the essay, Shurin writes about 1965-66, when he’s 18 years old and discovering his gay sexuality and San Francisco. The essay is saturated with stunning sentences.
Shurin picks two sentences that describe his trip on the F bus, across the Bay Bridge, from Berkeley, where he’s an undergraduate, to San Francisco. It’s late, 10:00 PM, and Shurin is headed to a gay bar called the Rendezvous.
And there at the crest between the big suspension towers from the top deck heading west the city began to sparkle into view over the salted gray steel, one tall building lit up, another glittering group, a huge gesturing neon sign, the tall silhouettes arced with scintillations, a sense of streaming purpose, one glinting community of buildings with night-vision eyes alive in the dark, glimpsed always through the bars of the sloping cables, an actual other side, I drank the elixir of, keeping my head up, now, for clear sight and my abiding hope rising. A complicity of electricity burned high as I neared the shining metropolis all vicissitudes of school or traffic or psychiatry or family couldn’t deny, a shimmer of the western wave exactly at its crest, this fluorescent tournament of arrivals, radiating city at the water’s edge abound.
“These two sentences are the largest sentences I ever wrote in terms of scope,” says Shurin. “I’m a guy who is not afraid to let it rip, and here I let it rip. They encompass, in a way, a lifetime of cathexis with San Francisco for me. The hyperbole was in order; this constellation of neon and spires and movement and the concept of traveling to another side, an actual other side, crossing the bridge, and also the bridge of my life, from narrow youth to exploding young adulthood, from straightness to queerness. It was all there, the visual eruption that matched the internal eruption.”
He pauses. “I remember I questioned the word ‘tournament.’ It was so unusual, so pitched. A preposterous image, it’s the most pitched phrase I ever wrote in a prose sentence, but its oddness and discomfort and the excess really nailed the experience for me.”
In the morning, I stop at the market. The same emptiness, the same things in my basket, except for one thing—the book, so full of stunning sentences, I put Shurin’s book on the conveyor belt.
“For you,” I say to Lisa. “I’ve got a recommendation.”
– Nina Schuyler’s latest novel, The Translator, was published by Pegasus Books. Her first novel, The Painting, was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.