It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859
The other day two grandmothers, Mindy and Lynette, were visiting their beloved grandchild Meyer Manual. After playing and cooing and aahing and watching Alixandra attempt to feed him mashed bananas, 99% of which ended up on his bib and his chin and my elbow and just about everywhere but in his mouth, Lynette said she had to split. As she was leaving, she said to me, “I love your columns. You’re such a good writer.” (Be that as it may.) I said, “I don’t know where it comes from, I never had any formal training.” Lynette laughed, and said, “Well, I had formal training, and I can’t write like that.”
Well, I don’t know how good a writer I am; I always think I could be a gazillion-million times better. But that’s not the point of this column. This is…
I left soon afterwards, and as I was driving home in my car, listening to All Things Considered on WNYC-FM (my local NPR station), coincidentally the segment was about writing. Well, not writing exactly, but about great sentences.
The editors of the magazine American Scholar have compiled a list of their ten best sentences in fiction and non-fiction; as associate editor Margaret Foster explained, “It came about as a result of ‘water cooler’ talk around the office. We’re sometimes struck by a beautiful sentence or maybe a lousy sentence, and we’ll just say, ‘Hey, listen to this,’” Her choice, she went on to say, is the last line of Toni Morrison’s Sula:
It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
I haven’t read Sula, but even without knowing the context of the sentence, I agree that it is beautiful. It could be describing the wail of a mother who has lost her child, the ghostly unending cry of six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis in World War II, or the devastating misery of a population in a world gone to apocalyptic madness. It captures an emotional resonance that echoes of unforgettable pain, unforgivable brutality, and undying loss.
It’s hard to say what makes an unforgettable sentence. I agree with Ms. Foster, who said, “…in the end, very subjective,” she says. “I mean, who are we to say what the best sentence in The Great Gatsby is?”
By the way, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, which many consider the Great American Novel, made the list with this sentence:
“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
It’s not “See Spot run”, is it?
But even Fitzgerald started someplace.
I don’t know if diagramming a sentence is still taught in elementary school English classes anymore, but I remember it as a continuing homework assignment back when I was a student at P.S. 29 on Staten Island, New York. It began with simple sentences and progressively became more difficult with our increasing comprehension of grammatical structure. It looked like this, using the simple sentence from above:
Actually, that’s not such a simple sentence, “run” is a shortened present participle (don’t ask!), and the grammatically correct sentence should read, “Did you Spot running?”
So let’s pick another, simpler sentence. How about…
I | love | comics
…in which the diagram above indicates the “form” of a sentence. The “I” is the object, “love” is the verb, and “comics” is the subject.
But how do you get from a simple, three-word sentence to something like Fitzgerald’s last sentence The Great Gatsby, or to William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! or James Joyce’s Ulysses without your editor throwing you out on your ass with a copy of E.B. White’s The Element of Style following your bruised butt?
It’s the same answer as that old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice.”
Or is it? Maybe it’s something else—a mastery of the language, or talent, or maybe it’s something intangible.
Call it a mystery, call it a gift from God or the Goddess or the Universe or even call it The Force…
Whatever it is that allows some to grace us with words that form sentences that speak truth to us and stay in our heads forever and ever—It’s magic.
Photo by gualtiero