Sentences. Those precious, precious sentences… I find myself thinking about sentences a lot, especially after I’ve written a bunch of questionable ones.
Oh, writers: those esoteric beings perched over a keyboard or a notebook, crafting stories one word at a time, one sentence at a time. And the writers who have written and/or published multiple books LOVE to remind us of the incredible importance of the finely tuned sentence, and the Herculean battle they embarked upon to get those lauded strings of words just. Exactly. Right. The lost sleep! The blood! The sweat! Etcetera!
When I started grad school, it had been twenty-plus years since I’d had to carefully contemplate things like sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, tone, beats… In my workaday world post-undergrad and pre-MFA program, sentences were purely utilitarian: say things to convey information, ideas, feelings, or make a friend laugh. Of course it was always important to me that my sentences, whether written or spoken, were soundly constructed and made sense, but understanding them to the degree that my program’s faculty discussed in workshops (and even in casual conversations I’d overhear while passing by) was overwhelming, to say the least. It had just been so long since I’d thought about that stuff, I was afraid I’d never be able to grasp it again. I remember scribbling “What have I done? I am in completely over my head.”
Realizing all that we don’t know, and haven’t even thought about when we start on a writing project is enough to make a person turn back before they really start. Maybe you’re there right now.
OK, so… I’m working on something now, too. It’s been in progress for what’s got to be two years now. I had a lot of ideas, and, in fits and starts, have written – as of today – 47,702 words. Most of the reason why I haven’t gotten more words and more story is: the sentence. The vast majority of sentences in this thing are garbage. I can practically see the comments by former mentors and editors about how messy this sentence/paragraph/chapter is. It’s like commentary during a baseball game, only it’s about this thing I’m still trying to make. I’m editing myself before I actually have enough to edit.
Sculptors make beautiful things. I always think of the Venus de Milo, with her luminous, pensive facial expression, the dropped shoulder, and the curve of her neck. And how she started as a block of stone – or maybe marble? I’m not sure. I’m not a literal sculptor. But that detail, that beauty, came out of an amorphous block. Think how strong the artist’s vision must have been to chisel away at that block to reveal that goddess of beauty that still evokes emotion and passion today.
That block is your first draft. And you don’t even get to buy it or have it given to you; you have to MAKE it. And a block is exactly what it needs to be: blocky (of course), heavy, bulky. In fact, the bigger the block, the more material there is to chisel away at. And if you make a mistake with that chisel, at least you’ll have enough marble or stone or whatever to chip away more and more until it looks exactly like you want it to.
If you spend too much time editing your sentences as you try to plow through your first draft, you will never get to play with that big, strong, solid block. So keep going, keep building that blocky word count until it’s so big, with so many sentences that will absolutely need chiseling, that you’ll have lots of room for mistakes and missteps – and then when you’re all the way through you can start obsessing about making your sentences fine and intricate. But until then, keep making those big, blocky ones. Your Venus will reveal herself to you in due time.
Shawna-Lee is a writer with a debut novel called Radio Waves, which is all about connecting to music in such a way that it can change the course of one’s life. In addition to music, she also loves stand-up comedy, proverbial rabbit holes, and desolate lighthouses. She’s a lifelong New Englander, and is currently working on a novel about Gen X-ers, friendship, and life’s unexpected turns.