Friday, October 21, 2011

Life Sentences

When you discover a remarkable scene in a short story or novel, and in those even more heartwarming moments when, as you seek to revise something you have written, you meet a paragraph or two that brings the sense of blood rushing to serve some neglected part of your being, you are catapulted back to a time in your life where one of your great pleasures was to lift large rocks in the garden after a rain shower.

 Much of your adult reading and writing life has, in metaphor, been a continuation of lifting rocks after rain, watching the scurry and industry of the creatures in their attempts to restore some kind of balance or stasis to interrupted routine.  All story is, in fact, results of interrupted stasis.  Someone sets forth, perhaps, or some stranger enters our nest.

These events are captured with words, joined into sentences, nurtured and arranged into paragraphs.  For some time now, you have been focused on the scene, which is the basic unit of story.  This focus does not in any way imply mastery, because every scene is or should be new, wanting its own discovery and logic.  The focus on scene has led you to the awareness of the scene and your curiosity about what makes it work so well when it works, what causes it not to work when it stumbles, falters, then fizzles out.

You had listed a number of elements present in the successful scene, all necessary ingredients, but the notion has come to you that you may well have done the equivalent of publishing a recipe for lemon meringue pie without having included instructions relating to the lemon.  Included in that notion is the awareness and appreciation in your awareness of the forgotten ingredient.  No question about the ingredient existing; it is the sentence, which may appear in a number of roles, starting with narrative but certainly stepping out as dialogue.

Sentences may be short, declarative, pungent.  They may be long, languorous excursions through time, clauses, events.  They may useful in suggesting a particular emotion such as fear or dread, at one end of the scale of feelings, or reflective, even contemplative.  Sentences may be in the active voice, wherein a subject, some person, place, or thing, colludes with the predicate, which in its own way conveys through action some movement or progress on the part of the subject.  Even such simplicity as “The apple is red.” Shows subject and predicate at work, wherein the subject apple now extends the state of being.  Of course there is that lovely adjective giving description to the apple’s state of being.

Sentences may also be cast in the passive voice.  “A vote was taken,” is such a sentence.  In that particular example, we’d have to rely on context to determine who the individuals were who took the vote, but we’d have the advantage of knowing we could turn the sentence into active voice by adding the pronoun “we.”  We took a vote.  Want to move the sentence back to passive?  Okay, “The vote was taken by us.”  In the sentence “We took a vote,” the subject is we, the predicate is took.  Using the passive voice, we focus on making vote an object, in fact the direct object.

All right with the grammar.  At onetime, you were excited by grammar because you appeared to have skills at diagramming sentences, especially when you were in a mischievous, show-offy mood where you feigned disinterest and preoccupation to the point where the teacher would pounce, and then, off to the blackboard, where, with heavy squeaking of chalk, your diagram of a sentence was to you like a theater marquee.  Subject? Yeah, right here.  Predicate?  Un huh.  Goes here.  Direct object.  Yep.  It was as though you were announcing the arrival of Omar Little on The Wire. You’d best be right.  And you were.

The sentence gets you going; it is the first few strides in the day’s work; it is the song that vibrates through your being when the gun is fired at the start of a marathon or your own favorite race, the twenty-kilometer.  It is a sense of coordination, management, distance covered, and the exquisite awareness of elapsed time, all coming into play.

You worked hard to achieve the stature and condition that allowed you to know you could finish any race you decided to enter.  No guarantees about elapsed time or indeed your position in the pack of other runners at the finish.  Some of that was up to you, some of it entirely beyond your control.

Same thing with sentences.  They are remarkable structures.  To you, they are creatures, living things with their own personality, their own culture, their own sense of preferred word order.  Best you spend some time with them; listen to them.  See what they have in store for you.

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