I knew I was going to enjoy Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence when the first chapter included this little gem from John Updike:
“It was in the books while it was still in the sky.”
The sentence comes from Updike’s famous account of what it was like to see Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox hit a home run in his last at bat in Fenway Park on September 28, 1960. To refresh my memory, I just went back and re-read Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu in The New Yorker, and was reminded once again of how it has stood the test of time as an incredible piece of writing.
Fish is right to call out this marvelous 12-word description of The Kid’s final home run as something special within the overall masterpiece. His breakdown of what makes it such a powerful piece of writing begins as he notes that the “fulcrum” of Updike’s description is the word “while.”
“(O)n either side of it are two apparently very different kinds of observations. ‘It was in the books’ is metaphorical. Updike imagines, correctly, that this moment will be memorialized in stories and at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and he confers that mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park.”
As Fish notes, the ball—in Updike’s sentence—never does get out of the park. Instead, it is still “in the sky.”
“On the surface ‘in the books’ and ‘in the sky’ are distinct registers, one referring to the monumentality the home run will acquire in history, the other describing the ball’s actual physical arc; but the registers are finally, and indeed immediately (this sentence goes fast), the same: the physical act and its transformation into myth occur simultaneously; or rather, that is what Updike makes us feel as we glide through this deceptively simple sentence composed entirely of monosyllables.”
I wanted to showcase this particular example, because it is simple and straightforward, yet telling. Fish has written a marvelous work, one that not only includes wonderful example after wonderful example from a wide range of writers, but one that also takes the time to teach us how to analyze a sentence in order to gain payoff and pleasure in reading.
Fish’s book was first published in 2011 and is just one of the works on writing that I have been enjoying during my gap year.* As I took a break from a personal writing project, I thought it was an appropriate time to delve into Fish’s exploration of a particular aspect of writing—constructing an effective sentence—in more detail.
Why sentences? Fish begins by quoting Annie Dillard in The Writing Life. She tells the story of a fellow writer who is asked by a student, “Do you think I could be a writer?” The writer responds, “Well, do you like sentences?” She compares that to a conversation she once had with a painter who, when asked how he came to be a painter, responded, “I like the smell of paint.”
The point is that we don’t begin work as a painter or writer with grand conceptions. We begin “with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.”
There are so many places in this work to highlight, that I’ll simply note that the chapters on first and last sentences are worth the price of the book alone, just to read the examples. For instance, it is hard to improve upon Agatha Christie’s opening to the book Nemesis.
“In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper.”
So much information in 16 words, if we take the time to consider it. And Fish’s description of what to consider is worth quoting in full.
“The sentence seems simple; but in fact it communicates a surprising amount of information (and more) in its brief space. Even before we meet Christie’s detective-heroine, Miss Marple, we know a great deal about her. She has a routine, she follows it, and it occurs daily. Indeed, it is more than a routine. It is a custom, a word that suggests tradition, duration, and an obligatory practice tied to social and class norms. (These suggestions are enhanced by the slow progress of her full title, “Miss Jane Marple.”) Moreover, one senses that “custom” is not for her a thing easily trifled with. Her customs, we intuit, are methodically, even ritualistically observed. We know this from the word “unfold”; unfolding is so much more formal than opening; merely opening a newspaper, in any which way, would seem indecorous and overhasty to her. As she unfolds it, she can take its contents in the order in which they are given, from the important news of the front page to the (to her) equally important news of the obituary page. The word that sets the seal on this mini-portrait is “second.” The word is casually delivered, but because it comes late and constitutes a small surprise—it tells us that this is part two of her custom, something we hadn’t been expecting—it calls attention to itself and to its message: Miss Marple is not content with one source of information; she has to know everything. And she will know everything. You wouldn’t want to be someone who has something to hide.”
That attention to every word of a simple sentence is one of the keys to Fish’s thesis that a sentence is a structure of logical relationships, and we make the one error “to worry about” when we are illogical. His central rule: “(M)ake sure that every component of your sentence is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).”
As for a sentence that “would be an accomplishment even if we didn’t know the story it brings to an end,” consider the last words of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
When you want to take a break from your writing or reading in order to learn more about “how” to write or read, you could do much worse than to pick up How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.
More to come…
Installment #16 of The Gap Year Chronicles.