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Verlyn Klinkenborg: “Several short sentences about writing”

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.

Related Posts:
As You Like It: Rules for Writing
Ticker Tape Sentence
A Year From the Use and Misuse of English Grammar

A Pith Zany

Nook EveningAnd what he did last just
before his personal power
rose and surged
then tweeted out
was check his e-mail.

“Heaven will be full of spam,”
he decried, “because
everyone wants to be there,
while hell will be whiteout,
an empty inbox.”

“Or the other way around,”
I replied.
“Oh, that’s pithy,” he said.
“And there’s nothing I dislike
more than an epiphany poem.”

Watermarks from a Night Spring

Embers of a partially burned ocean
In a box in a dank basement molting notes
A weathered surfer slowly descends the creaking

Worn stairs, dark swells yawning
Fish eyed and barnacle knuckled he climbs
Finds and opens the box, peers in, smells the pages

Runs salted fingers over the raised words
Rusting paper clips, chiseled letters in Courier font
Fading beached seagulls washing away in an incoming tide

Wired spiraled journaled waves
Bleaching across the page ink in water
Blistering sun burnt tattoos on old shivered skin

He can no longer read without bottled glasses
He chuckles, the tide receding washing scouring
White out rocks across words stuck buried in red tide pools

Breathing with a snorkel
The surfer leers over the smoldering sea
Takes up the seaweed soiled waxed manuscript

And paddles out of the basement
Walks down to the beach and what remains
Of the water and casts out the paper fish net

Into a set of scaling waves
Lit with a lustrous industrial moon
The waves curling letters in blue neon.

(Click any photo to view gallery)

A Cat’s Email

IMG_1121 A Cat's Email– Did you get my email?
– What email?
– I sent you an email.
– I delete all email before reading it.
– That doesn’t make any sense!
– Welcome to the world of Postmodern Poetry.
– But I sent you an email!
– Must we go through this again?
– Joe’s post titled “Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice” that was “Freshly Pressed” here has now been reposted at Berfrois!
– I think I need a nap.
– How many naps do you take in a day?
– As Dylan so eloquently put it, “Any day now, any day now…”
– Why does he have to say it twice?

A Cat’s Memoir

A Cat's Memoir– I’m going to write a memoir!
– You’re speaking of flash fiction, I presume?
– No. I want to tell your story.
– My story?
– Yes, Joe says it’s the writer’s job to tell the stories of cats without voices, and you don’t seem to have a voice.
– Joe? Who is Joe?
– Joe is this really cool cat hep blogger at The Coming of the Toads, all about cool cat lit cult stuff, poetry and jazz, the ocean and deep silence. You would dig it.
– And is this Joe cat credible and reliable? What does this Joe do for a living?
– I don’t know. I think he may not have a life, so he doesn’t need to worry about all that. I think he might be a fictional character.
– And who is behind this fictional Joe?
– I’m not sure, his memoirist, I guess.

Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

Related Post: Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

As You Like It: Rules for Writing

Back in February 2010, the Guardian posted an article titled “Ten rules for writing fiction.” Celebrated authors had been invited to submit ten of their writing rules. But rules often break down under pressure, we might find writers breaking their own, or the examples held up for adulation contain so many exceptions that the rule is nullified early in the game. Take Jonathan Franzen’s rule regarding using then as a conjunction, for example.

Franzen gets pretty worked up about it. Over at the FS&G “Work in Progress” blog, he expounds on his “Comma-Then” rule. Basically, Franzen frowns on the use of then to connect, particularly when the intent is to avoid using and. Fine, I thought, but unmoved, as usual, by this kind of nitpicking, then thought to check his examples.

Franzen explains why he dislikes “comma-then,” and cites Dickens and the Brontes in support. Is it a rule? Should it be? The OED gives this example of the use of then as a conjunction: “The president spoke and spoke well, then sat down. The OED example would appear to violate Franzen’s rule. But Franzen didn’t say the “comma-then” construction was ungrammatical. His argument is stylistic and idiosyncratic. But he cited Dickens and the Brontes as examples of writers who avoided “comma-then.” So l took a look at some Dickens and two of the Brontes, but what I found does not seem to support Franzen’s argument:

From Dickens’s “David Copperfield”:

“Uriah threw the ball to Mrs. Heep, Mrs. Heep caught it and threw it back to Uriah, Uriah kept it up a little while, then sent it back to Mrs. Heep, and so they went on tossing it about until I had no idea who had got it, and was quite bewildered.”

“But I looked so serious, that Dora left off shaking her curls, and laid her trembling little hand upon my shoulder, and first looked scared and anxious, then began to cry.”

From Dickens’s “Bleak House”:

“Jo searches the floor for some time longer, then looks up for a moment, and then down again.”

“My Lady turns her head inward for the moment, then looks out again as before.”

From Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”:

“I listened doubtingly an instant; detected the disturber, then turned and dozed, and dreamt again.”

“Pausing in her lamentations, she surveyed him with a glance of awe and horror, then burst forth anew.”

“He took the book from his hand, and glanced at the open page, then returned it without any observation.”

“He laid them on the table, looked eagerly towards the window, then rose and went out.”

From Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”:

“I walked to the window, across the room, then close up to her.”

“I stood and warmed my numbed fingers over the blaze, then I looked round.”

“Half-an-hour’s recreation succeeded, then study; then the glass of water and the piece of oat-cake, prayers, and bed.”

“He scrutinised the reverse of these living medals some five minutes, then pronounced sentence.”

Not all of the rules in the Guardian article mentioned above are about the mechanics of writing. Some of the rules are about the behavior of the writer, rules to improve productivity or efficiency. The Guardian list opens with Elmore Leonard, whose first rule speaks to writing strategy: Don’t open with the weather, Leonard says. But that’s exactly how Jonathan Franzen begins his novel, “The Corrections,” his first paragraph reminding me of the opening to Dickens’s “Bleak House,” bad weather and sentence fragments. Dickens opens with “Implacable November weather…Fog everywhere,” Franzen with “an autumn prairie cold front…Gust after gust of disorder.”

Implacable, too, the rules of writing. Speaking of fog, rules for writing often fog the glasses of our desire, streak the windows of our prose, our fingers go blind, then despondency.

The Seven Ages of the Writer Amid Rules

Maybe the rules of writing are like Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, found in the play “As You Like It.” In the first stage (of a modified Shakespeare, the seven ages of the writer), the writer is an infant, and there are no rules. In the second stage, the infant grows into grammar school, fidgeting against the rules. The third stage, he’s in love with the rules, whatever he determines them to be. Then a soldier of rules, the professor, or the professional writer looking for an easy gig between novels. Then wisdom sets in for a spell. Then his time passes, and a new generation of writers watches him slip on the banana peels of his rules. And in the end, “mere oblivion” is the rule, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Poem WalkingNew Year’s resolutions sounding redundant? Bored with the idea of giving up potato chips and dip for another year? Discouraged just looking at the stationary bike you got for Christmas?

Read the Toads post “Why Read Poetry?” at Berfrois, and make poetry a New Year’s resolution!

Four Dubliners and a Scholar’s Mirror

When Richard Ellmann wrote his Library of Congress lectures in the early 1980s on four Irish writers (Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett), later issued in book form under the title Four Dubliners, Beckett was still living (barely; he died 18 months after the book’s publication). Most of Beckett’s work comes after WWII, work that often seems remote from time, if not out of time, and his coming to the tee last in the foursome is more than chronologically significant. Is he the oddest in an odd foursome?

Ellmann acknowledges in his brief preface the tenuous argument of linking the four together as peas in a pod: “These four, it may be granted, make a strange consortium.” Ellmann sews the group into a singularity with thematic threads from their works and their lives: “They posit and challenge their own assumptions, they circle from art to anti-art, from delight to horror, from acceptance to renunciation. That they should all come from the same city does not explain them, but they share with their island a tense struggle for autonomy, a disdain for occupation by outside authorities, and a good deal of inner division.”

One of the life-threads linking Joyce to Beckett was the trouble with occupation, how to earn a living while the world was busy ignoring what they considered to be their real work. They both tried but were disappointed with teaching. Joyce, who could have easily obtained a scholarly position at a university, instead occupied himself for a time with an alternative form of teaching – tutoring English language lessons. Beckett, who did secure a credible post, declined it almost immediately: “His teaching post at Trinity he quit abruptly because he discovered, and would later remark, that he could not teach others what he did not himself understand, a handicap that most of us endure without bridling” (92). That end break in scholarly text is not Ellmann’s only one in a short book full of gems and surprises.

One of the surprises that emerges might be both Joyce’s and Beckett’s humility and self-doubt as they stumble up to the world’s literary stage. One of the gems is found in a story Joyce once told to a friend, Louis Gillet:

“It was about an old Blasket Islander who had lived on his island from birth and knew nothing about the mainland or its ways. But on one occasion he did venture over and in a bazaar found a small mirror, something he had never seen in his life. He bought it, fondled it, gazed at it, and as he rowed back to the Blaskets he took it out of his pocket, stared at it some more, and murmured, ‘Oh Papa! Papa!’ He jealously guarded the precious object from his wife’s eye, but she observed that he was hiding something and became suspicious. One hot day, when both were at work in the fields, he hung his jacket on a hedge. She saw her chance, rushed to it, and extracted from a pocket the object her husband had kept so secret. But when she looked in the mirror, she cried, ‘Ach, it’s nothing but an old woman!’ and angrily threw it down so that it broke against a stone.”

“Authors, he [Beckett] has said, are never interesting” (93). And Wilde: “There is something vulgar about all success. The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.” And Becket: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail…” (109). Ellmann the scholar was able to thread remarks like these together to form an interesting view of four writers who “were chary of acknowledging their connections” (Preface). If authors are never interesting, what can scholars, their mirrors so quickly obscured, hope for? Let alone the common blogger, whose posts continually fall like awetomb sheaves down the electronic chute.

Ellmann, Richard. Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. New York: George Braziller, July 1988. 122 pages.

Related Post: Breakfast at Beckett’s