Amy O'Neill Houck: On Short Sentences

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Write One Good Sentence.

Write one good, short sentence. And then another. That’s the message of the book I’m reading, Several Short Sentences About Writing, by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Klinkenborg draws us back to a time in our life as readers when sentences mattered: childhood. When I was not even a reader myself, but read to, my dad would pick a book like Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop, and purposefully mess up the rhyme or the meter. My brother and I noticed, and we’d correct him immediately. Like Klinkenborg says, it wasn’t just that we cared about the story or the meaning of the book, we believed there was something right about the very sentences. You might say, “well, Hop on Pop is verse, of course the words matter.” What Klinkenborg wants us to consider, (he advises us not to consider his advice blindly), is the idea of giving each word and phrase the time and care that a poet would. To do this, he advises, write short sentences. You won’t always have to write short sentences, he says. But start there.

Try making prose with a poetic seriousness about its
Rhythm, twists of language, the capacity to show the
What lies beyond expression,
But with the gaits of prose and a plainness in reserve
That poetry rarely possesses, an exalted plainness.

So, you can see the book doesn’t read like a typical one on the craft of writing. Klinkenborg has a line break for each sentence—often more than one break per sentence. He has lots and lots of white space around these sentences. I guess I wouldn’t call them paragraph breaks, because he’s not exactly writing paragraphs. He’s not advocating his own unusual style; he’s just calling attention to the sentences. It works. I quickly forgot about the weird line breaks and just began to enjoy his insights and opinions.

I thought about an essay I just read by Adam Gopnik about Edmund Burke. I’m not a historian and it was the first thing I read in-depth about Burke—an 18th century politician and activist. Gopnik’s essay, which braided ideas about American conservatism, the French revolution, and British Imperialism, made me consider (again) that good writing can make any subject enjoyable. Klinkenborg tends to rant a little bit about a couple of things, and “meaning” is one of them.

Here’s another basic truth.
Prose isn’t validated by a terminal meaning.
If you love to read—as surely you must—you love being wherever you find yourself in the book you’re reading, 
Happy to be in the presence of ever sentence as it passes by,
Not biding your time until the meaning comes along.

I don’t think that Klinkenborg wants writers to forget about meaning altogether. Instead, he wants to give us the freedom to consider sentences—to enjoy sentences—and delight in words the way we did as children.

As any good book does, Klinkenborg’s makes me think about other things I’ve read, and other things I’d like to read. It makes me want to grab favorite books and dig down into the sentences looking at clues that will say: the author put that word just there because… It also makes me want to write. And anything that gives me the urge to put pen to paper is a gift worth reading.

Amy O’Neill Houck, our guest blogger for October, recently finished her MFA in creative nonfiction at UAA. She lives in Juneau, and occasionally writes feature stories for The Juneau Empire and The Capital City Weekly. Amy works at Perseverance Theatre, and in her off hours, she teaches ukulele and knitting. Usually not at the same time.
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