2. The monster sentence. Begin with a simple short sentence—“I baked bread”—subject verb object—and then turn it into a “monster sentence” of at least 100 words. This exercise is straight out of Stanley Fish's playbook. Use every trick you know to ensure that the sentence is grammatically correct and not a run-on, use long dashes (em-dashes), semicolons, lists. Then explain what you’ve created, reviewing what you’ve written, phrase by phrase. NOTE: The explanation should be longer than the original sentence. Write nonfiction, then explain your work.
My assignment grew long, I mean reeeeealy long. I only needed 100 words and I have considerably more words… and that’s after I edited and carved it back a little. Then I revised and cut it back into shorter (but still with monster) sentences. And that’s when I found the point of it all.
Reflection: The root I had in mind when I started: "Membership has its privileges." My sentence below has 359 words, is grammatically correct, wander all over creation, and could easily be broken into several sentences, but isn't. Maybe two? Twenty? Monster sentence: I recognized early on that criticizing any student to their parents was a non-starter because it damaged trust, failed to help the student improve, and only made students afraid to bring their parents to conferences, which would have been a pity because I liked meeting parents and always promised student I would have something good to say about each of them, which is only one of the reasons—that respect—that I always answered their questions; and one of those questions that came up year after year was why, if the word “nigger” was so awful—and they were willing to accept that Mark Twain was being historically accurate—that I would not allow them to say the word aloud in class except when they were reading aloud, could rappers (shouldn’t they know better?) use that word in lyrics; and the answer was simple enough: membership has its privileges, and I gave them an example from my own life—I might criticize my brother because he’s family and I love him (and whom I did not, in fact, ever criticize in my classes), but heaven help you it you criticized my brother to me, which always made them laugh, but is also is also why I can recall only a couple of times I criticized students to their parents, always making clear that I did not dislike their student, that I believed their student was capable of doing better, and that with support their student would, in fact do better; and even so I have failed to follow my own rule on occasion and, more to the point, struggle to ensure I do not criticize a member of my family, who is not perfect, but deserves to be spared judgement by those who are supposed to appreciate, understand, and show the compassion and patience I always tried to offer students, even those failing or skipping my classes. Reflection: I had that root sentence during my walk yesterday from an old commercial that most students recognized and which made them laugh—it softened them up so that they were in the mood to understand why rap lyrics included words I did not allow them to use in class. Thinking about teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn brought up a lot of other memories I did not include, such as the young woman of color I utterly failed to reassure, and another student I failed. So I was simultaneously feeling good about how well my "membership has its privileges"-line worked and distressed about things that did not. I was also upset that morning about how challenging it is not to follow my own advice, and how much I wish others would at least try to follow the advice of not picking about someone to the people who love them best. I began with students and ended with them, but I wandered to myself in the middle both with the example I used in class and to my current life, and I think sometimes this might be an effective way to discover what you actually want to write about, either as a journaling exercise or in writing creative nonfiction to be shared. Because sometimes you really do know know what you want to write about—know that feeling? Sometimes you start an essay not sure how to finish it, or where it wants to go in the middle, or, actually, what the essay is supposed to be about. Further: starting at A, wandering off to Z, and then circling back to A again is one of my "sneaky writer tricks" that I shared with students. I also discovered a very short sentence, which is another one of my favorite "sneaky writer tricks" to follow a long sentence with a short one. Very long sentences flow fast by the reader, an overpowering rush of words. The short one brings them up short, calls attention to itself. It might even be the point. See my revision... So. Here is my monster revised to more reasonable-length sentences: I recognized early on in my teaching career that criticizing any student to their parents is a non-starter because it damages trust, failed to help the student improve, and only makes students afraid to bring their parents to conferences, which would have been a pity because I liked meeting parents and always promised students I would have something good to say about each of them. Respect is one reason that I always answered their questions; and one of those questions that came up year after year was why, if the word “nigger” was so awful—and they were willing to accept that Mark Twain was being historically accurate—why would I not allow them to say the word aloud in class except when they were reading aloud, but rappers (shouldn’t they know better?) used that word in lyrics? The answer was simple enough: membership has its privileges. For example, I might criticize my brother for something he's done because he’s family and I love him (and whom I did not, in fact, ever criticize in my classes), but "heaven help someone else if they criticize my brother to me," which I said in a tough-ferocious voice and always made my students laugh, but that example is also why I can recall only a couple of times I criticized students to their parents, and always made clear that I did not dislike their student, that I believed their student was capable of doing better, and that with support their student would, in fact, do better. [109 words] Even so, I must work hard to follow my own rule on occasion and, more to the point, in my seventieth year I still struggle to limit criticism of some members of my family and not to speak out against other's criticism of my family, who are none of us perfect, but all deserve to be spared judgement by those who are supposed to appreciate, understand, and show compassion and patience to the people we care about the way I always tried to offer compassion and patience to students, even those failing or skipping my classes, even those in my family who wound me, because I do take sides—I do—but I am always on theirs. [117 words] Because that is love. Reflection on revision: The revision is better, I think. Your opinion? It still contains two very long and two "monster" sentences, and though I broke them into paragraphs to show the sentence breaks, I think they are all one paragraph. I added and deleted some words and caught a couple of typos (and I'm betting created a couple of new ones). And that last line? That was the point. It is the point. When you talk to someone you love or about someone you love, you are supposed to consider their feelings, needs, and situations... not just your own. You are supposed to love them.
FINAL THOUGHT: I heard from a few people about the first exercise, including brave individuals who shared. There has been not a peep about this one, and that is too bad, since this is a useful exercise. Many fine essays and creative nonfiction and fiction make use of the monster sentence to rush through telling, to provide an overwhelming sensation that serves the narrative, or simply to create a rhythm purpose-made for the subject of the writing.
American writers are famous/notorious for our short sentences, and you might blame Hemingway’s lingering legacy for that. Our sentences tend toward journalistic. If you are a reader and have been reading American novels but dip into a British or French or Japanese novel and find the going a little rough at first, it might be because almost every writer in the world uses longer sentences that we do. Americans do not want expository paragraphs at the beginning of novels. We do not want long paragraphs or sentences. This preference is noticeable in the way “difficulty” is calculated by American education academics. The more words, the more difficult that writing—at least that is one way of determining readability. The other is based on syllables/word. Longer sentences/more syllables = harder. It is a simplistic method, of course. The often-cited Flesch reading ease score is based on combining estimates of both syllables/word and words/sentence to estimate how difficult a passage is for the reader.
It’s not that simple. Ease of reading is also affected by content, tone, and familiarity. If we are familiar with the ideas and if we agree with them and if we are in any way predisposed to like the material or find the material entertaining—all affect readability. So does humor. Reading is a highly personal and subjective experience. Those averages of sentence and word length are estimates, averages, and the actual reading experience is individual and idiosyncratic.
REMINDER: On Friday I will post another Exercise #3, requiring a couple of normal-length sentences.
“Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”—–Susan Sontag, born this week in 1933