In the beginning was the word, and the word was a sentence.
And the sentence was an assignment.
And the assignment broiled in the brain,
that alchemical brewpub of doubt.
A devil came near, cooing, “Plagiarize, my dear;
allow me to serve the sentence for you.”
A good angel appeared: “Depart, ye fiends of papers for free.
Ditch, web dwellers of rehearsed research.
Begone, you bad teachers of bad writing.
Students can do this on their own.”
And singing Blake’s proverb, from
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“No bird soars too high if he soars
with his own wings,” the angel dropped a book
into the waiting writer’s lap, and flew away.
What book did this fresh, good angel drop, which might bargain anew all the how-tos with writing students and their teachers both in and out of academia? Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing (Vintage, April 2013). Klinkenborg challenges schooled approaches consisting of “received wisdom about how writing works” (Prologue). Klinkenborg turns the traditional writing teacher on his head and shakes the bulges out of his pockets. All sorts of found, useless stuff drops out, lightening the student’s load. Klinkenborg speaks to the writing “piece,” considers genre arbitrary and binding. He eschews genres and schools and rules. But not grammar and syntax. Loves the fragment, not the run-on. His style is controlled by “implication.” Implication is a good sentence’s great secret, its ability to suggest thought. His sentences often illustrate their own attributes. The book as a whole is a study and a reflection on that study of the sentence. The book’s prose is cut into lines that emphasize what’s necessary to read a sentence for its syntax and rhythm and space. Some may see this as mere trickery, and maybe the book is a slow, idiosyncratic, quiet rant. His discussion of “rhetorical tics,” the bane of Freshman Composition that remains through graduate school and beyond like an old scar, is funny and sad (118). If you’ve ever completed any assignments on your own, you might recognize yourself in his descriptions of a web of false writing. I did. But I also saw many hunches I’ve had over time validated: writing is learned while writing and in no other way; a good writer is a good reader, a good proofreader, but also a good general interest reader, which means not having to have something that “interests me” before being able to read it, because good writing creates its own interest; teachers have done so much damage to students that many students would rather risk plagiarism than think and write on their own.
There are contradictions, difficult to resolve. Klinkenborg says, on page 57, “You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well.” I agree. The apparent contradiction is that he then spends the next sizable section of the book on what we should know about grammar. “You do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs,” he says, but he doesn’t say why, nor does he try to explain that difference (though the answer might be found in an implication I missed). If we don’t need to know grammar, why spend time on it? This is an important question. And of course we do know grammar. We learned grammar when we learned to speak. But we may not know how to talk about grammar or to read for grammar or syntax. And some knowledge of parts of speech and what we think of as grammatical terms might be important to certain kinds of reading. He wants us to find words in a dictionary and to notice etymology and parts of speech. This is sound. But some of his precepts seem vague, even New-Agey. Explaining implication, he says it’s “The ability to speak to the reader in silence” (13). Well, John Cage did speak to the reader in silence. And Klinkenborg’s many references to the way we were taught to write in school are at risk of becoming a kind of straw man argument. Has no one tried to dig through the dried up crap of fabricated rules before? But the straw man here, if there is one, might be personified as an industry of text books, so the challenge is worth the charge. Klinkenborg may not be an archangel delivering a sacred text, but his book clears the air for a spell.
A colleague suggested the Klinkenborg book, and I’m glad to have read it and to recommend it for general interest readers, writing teachers at any level, and students at any level, anyone, in short, in or out of school, interested in reading or writing. Yes, Klinkenborg wants to talk to the whole writing world about sentences. He wants to non-specialize the traditional approaches to thinking about writing, remove bogus rules from circulation, instill faith and trust in aspiring readers and writers.
Several short sentences about writing is divided into four major sections and many subsections. The book (204 pages) does not wear its skeleton on the outside. The main sections are as follows: 1 – a short prologue; 2 – the central text (146 pages), the sentences arranged in cut lines, like verse (opposite of what we’ve come to expect from prose); 3 – “Some Prose and Some Questions,” eleven short prose excerpts by established writers, followed by a section inviting analysis of the pieces through reflection suggested by specific questions Klinkenborg provides; and 4 – Some Practical Problems, 33 pages of short sentences from student writing, with short comments by Klinkenborg. It’s not a text book, but it could be used as a text. But that would require, perhaps, changing the mindset of an instructor, or even of an entire English department, or at least calling upon instructors to reconsider traditional “received wisdom about how writing works,” or how the teaching and learning of writing might work.
Here’s an example of a wonderful Klinkenborg sentence fragment: “The faint vertigo caused by an ambiguity you can’t quite detect” (55). This is quoted unfairly out of context (is there any other way to quote?), but who is “you” here? What kind of reading experience must one have to get dizzy reading a poor sentence? And here’s an example of the way he challenges the august teaching community: “…The assumption that logic persuades the reader instead of the clarity of what you’re saying” (117).
By implication, at least, Klinkenborg’s sentences touch on many of the topics usually covered in composition classes: research, authority, argument, outlining, chronology and sequence, style, ambiguity, rules, rubrics, writing models, imitation, rhythm, revision, editing, meaning, figurative language, transitions, reading, reader, clarity. The sentences wit and cut new paths through this overgrown field.
If you are into marginalia, this Klinkenborg book is a lepidopterist’s field day. I found myself chasing sentences around the book as if they were butterflies. My copy is a mess of notes. I was inspired to try my hand at an original sentence. Here goes nothing: Thoughts without sentences are like flowers that never bloom, each tightly wrapped petal a word waiting to become part of a sentence to be smelled, to be read or heard in a single breath. Klinkenborg would say it’s too long, ambiguous, cliched, doesn’t breathe. And it doesn’t make sense. Do we hear through breathing? Sounds like something a Woody Allen character might say, the audience erupting in laughter, the irony on you. “The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly…” (132). Easy for him to say.
As You Like It: Rules for Writing
Ticker Tape Sentence
A Year From the Use and Misuse of English Grammar