Thursday, April 4, 2013

Memoir: Life Sentences

As a general practice, you don't give much thought to the number of words to put into a sentence.  You'll more often think in terms of subject, I, you, he, she, trying to avoid starting any sentence with the pronoun it.  Then you think of the predicate, the verb, trying to arrive at something more evocative than a form of the verb to be.  In cases where the subject, the I, you, he, or she, and perhaps the they or we is followed by a verb with some teeth in it, such as wanted or hoped, then you are well along on your way to an object, something goal oriented such as rain or money or a date or even rain or a job.

You are also on your way to story because a character in want of something is out there on the edge of the diving board, poised, waiting to take the dive.  The only necessity now is some sort of plan.  I, you, he, she, they, we want something.  Now there is a plan.

Whoops.  Be sure to see if the pool below the diving board is filled with water.  Many stories have died aborning because of this fatal oversight.

When someone in an editorial capacity starts in on you about length of sentences, you cringe because you've been there before, knowing your preference for longer sentences, taking in fact pride in maintaining the thing you like most about long sentences, their inner cadence and connectedness, and working with great deliberation to keep verb tenses, subject, predicate, and object in a logical, followable, orderly path.  You do wish to be understood.  You are not being mischievous in writing long sentences.  You have no goals of confusing the reader, frustrating or confounding.  In an important sense to you, stream of consciousness, if kept on target, is an excellent way of capturing the inner workings of a specific character.

When called to consult on your text, you start by looking for semi-colons, converting these into periods, trimming as many as five or six words from a sentence.

You flash back to the days you worked for the Associated Press and were informed of the great amounts of money spent on tests determining the word length for sentences readers tended to balk at.  You remember one editor (who actually wore a light shade over his forehead) telling you a seventeen-word sentence was pushing the limits and could you please consider sentences of five or six words.  Given your subject matter, this was not difficult.  You'd have had to invent to add many more than five or six words.  Los Angeles egg prioes closed at a week low today.  The same editor, who at one point lectured you about adverbs, revised one of your sports stories to include one.  You'd written, "The Los Angeles Angels don't always loose in such a dramatic manner as they did today, dropping both ends of a Sunday double-header by double-digit scores."
He edited it to "The Los Angels dramatically lost a Sunday double header today, dropping each game by ten runs."

The Who, What, When, Where, and Why of journalism were interesting, but the what if of invention was more to your liking.  At a time when any number of athletes were attempting to swim the English Channel to France, it was factual and funny to write, Dover, England.  Nobody tried to swim the English Channel today.  Maybe tomorrow.  But such japery was throw away; it spoke of a certain type of wit and even cleverness, but it did not say anything at all of individuals, tired of being ordinary, trying to inflate their intentions to something more magisterial and affirming of the species, say falling in love or taking a fork in the road even though there was none to take.

Sometimes, such forks in the road require the writer writing of them to take more than a dozen words.  If the writer happened on an imaginative way to do in two or three words what normally took fifteen or twenty, do you think the writer would not jump at the chance?  Sometimes as well, opportunities for ideas and sentence lengths seem to materialize out of the atmosphere of desperation or pure involvement in a story for what may seem like an hour or so but which is in reality only another unit of measurement, a sentence or two.

Sentences come from the functional cortical areas, or so many are quick to believe.  While you have no quarrel with neurologists and have enjoyed a longed admiration for the writings and observations of Oliver Sacks, you cherish the notion that sentences come speeding forth from somewhere in the creative process that has yet to be mapped or charted along with the other cortical areas that have been mapped.

Sentences are useful tools for watching Spot run and jump and to see Dick and see Jane.  They can also let us know that Dick is trying to shake off a dreadful hangover, and Jane is waiting for Eric to appear because, well, because she has begun to recognize a certain chemistry that comes into play whenever she sees Eric.  Does she get this chemistry with Dick?  Don't even think it.  Dick is so not chemical.

You do not argue when editorial minds speak of your sentence length.  You in fact look for ways to compress.  At one point some years back, you were approached with the editor in chief of a weekly newspaper who wanted a weekly column from you with a word limit of one hundred words.  You spent some weeks writing fifty- and hundred-word paragraphs or sentences or constructions, quite liking the process.  Although the column never advanced, your time spent working at it was a constant source of pleasure and fun.

You were complaining to someone recently who wanted you to enter a six-hundred-word essay contest, saying you scarcely knew what you thought in six hundred words and to come back when the contest was extended to six thousand words; then you'd consider an entry.

Regardless of length, things should be pleasurable to write, things should cause you to quiver with inner mirth as the sentences come tumbling out.

What of the judges and readers, your friend asked, shouldn't they be taken into consideration?

They should, you argued, be able to stop reading at the precise moment and word count where the material ceased being fun for them.

A good deal of your reading these days is up to a point where reading ceases being fun and starts to become a chore.

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