March 3rd, 2010 / 2:33 pm
Craft Notes

Michael Kimball Guest Lecture #5: Language and Sentences

We are writers. Writers use language. There are lots of things we can do with language. As Robert Lopez says: “I always start with language.” And when he says that, he means his language, his particular language, and that every writer should have their own particular language. Raymond Carver gets at that with this (from “On Writing”): “It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another.”

When I think of language, I think of sentences. As John Banville says: “The sentence is the greatest human invention of civilization.” There are lots of things that we can do with a sentence. We can manipulate the syntax, the diction, the stresses, the tenses, the acoustics, the morphemes and the phonemes, syllables and prefixes and suffixes, the speed, and the length. As Andy Devine says: “The English sentence – because of English syntax – is infinitely expandable.”

We can manipulate objects, subjects, predicates, infinitives, participles, gerunds, phrases, clauses, and determiners. We can manipulate articles, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions. Joseph Young says: “Articles propel the sentence, push it off and keep it moving.” Stephen King says: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Joseph Brodsky says: “Don’t use too many adjectives.” Andy Devine says: “Adjectives are not as bad as adverbs.”

For instance, I like to structure sentences around articles and conjunctions and prepositions—the more perennial parts of language—so that my narrator has a singular way to speak. And I like to move prepositions to the end of the phrase or the end of the sentence. That was one of the first sentence things that I figured out for myself. It’s not what we’re taught to do, but it is still quite obviously English, and it creates a kind of semantic link in the sentence—and this vaguely unsettling feeling.


[Punctuation Intermission 1: I probably won’t do one of these things for punctuation, but I have something I want to say about commas: Commas can save your life.]

Here are some other writers talking about working with different parts of language:

Gary Lutz: “Language is matter—it’s a substance to be fingered and disturbed. All sorts of stuff can be pinned onto a word, or poked into it. I like to fasten an unaccustomed affix to the base of a perfectly drab noun or adjective. Oddballery of that kind appears to suit my narrators, who are forever in search of further, fussier ways to insist upon their difference.”

Dawn Raffel: “An acoustical presence can be created, I hope, by sentences that have voice, stance, authority and cadential integrity. I read every sentence aloud and revise it until it sounds right to my ear; I find I can’t go forward more than a few sentences without going back and attending to as many grace notes as possible. I’m not someone who writes ‘drafts.’ If the sentences are sloppy, all the energy goes out of the piece for me. So I might write three sentences and revise them half a dozen times before moving forward. Actually, that part—playing around with syllables—is fun. I could spend hours doing it and be happy as a pig.”

Blake Butler: “I like something that makes my mouth or face feel jogged or deleted some, perhaps. Something that within the syllables both allows the syllables to butt up against one another in ways that variously embrace or attack. I think a lot of it comes out of trying to hypnotize myself: I enjoy feeling locked out of my body. When I am really in it, when I really start to feel channeled and beaten up a little by my mouth without controlling it, that’s when those words are really coming and spitting me up.”

Joanna Howard: “The initial rhythmic instinct drives the sentence length, so that I have a sense of having completed a thought based on the need for a rhythmic pause. Beyond this initial rhythmic constraint, which is perhaps arbitrary or perhaps organic, I like the cause-and-effect relationships built up out of strings of clauses, so that a detail is presented, commented on, resolved to some degree, until it triggers the next detail. I have always liked the way the word ‘sentence’ refers to a grammatical grouping, but also has a definition related to judgment and punishment of criminals: something which indicates verdict, as well as duration. This is how I think about sentences.”

Here’s Gary Lutz again: “I am drawn toward rhythms in which there are lots of stresses and hardnesses, and toward phrasings steeped in, or saturated with, a dominant vowel. I like inclemently declaratory sentences, sentences that disingratiate, sentences that feel full and final.”

[Punctuation Intermission 2: Another things about commas: Please don’t use comma splices. They make me hate whatever I’m reading.]

Here’s a kind of language check from John Gardner: “The writer who cares more about words than about story (characters, action, setting, atmosphere) is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much … his poetic drunkenness.”

Here’s Samuel Ligon with a kind of corollary to the Gardner: “I can’t remember who made the comment about prose being like a window, or exactly what was said, but I like that idea of making it invisible or unnoticeable, not smearing it up with anything that calls attention to itself. The reader needs to slip into a dream-like state through the writing, and it seems like clean, transparent prose can help facilitate that.”

And here is John Gardner, again, with one sentence that explains why I start with language: “Language actively drives the writer to meanings he had no idea he would come to.”

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137 Comments

  1. Kyle Minor

      My emdash shortcut is F12, and I love pressing F12.

  2. Kyle Minor

      My emdash shortcut is F12, and I love pressing F12.

  3. Edward Champion

      Apothegms are great for Hallmark cards, but, for the most part, unhelpful when it comes to writing fiction.

  4. Edward Champion

      Apothegms are great for Hallmark cards, but, for the most part, unhelpful when it comes to writing fiction.

  5. david e

      Yeah, some guy uses the word “ligate” around me, I’m going Sobchak on his posterior.

  6. david e

      Yeah, some guy uses the word “ligate” around me, I’m going Sobchak on his posterior.

  7. david e

      Read Udall’s “The Wig” (guy gets away with all kinds of adverbs in a magnificent micro)

  8. david e

      Read Udall’s “The Wig” (guy gets away with all kinds of adverbs in a magnificent micro)

  9. david e

      that’s not a command directed at you, Lincoln, and I’m guessing you’ve probably already read it

  10. david e

      that’s not a command directed at you, Lincoln, and I’m guessing you’ve probably already read it

  11. jesusangelgarcia

      respectfully disagree, edward. action = character, language = music, clarity is king… these are good apothegms (great word, by the way… sounds like opossum… tastes like chicken?) to keep in mind, at least for me.

  12. jesusangelgarcia

      respectfully disagree, edward. action = character, language = music, clarity is king… these are good apothegms (great word, by the way… sounds like opossum… tastes like chicken?) to keep in mind, at least for me.

  13. mimi

      I just learned a new word:
      apothegm- a short, pithy, instructive saying; a terse remark or aphorism.

      “great word, by the way….”
      I like “sounds like opossum… tastes like chicken”. Not exactly sure what you mean here, I just like those words together. They’re funny.
      To me it (‘apothegm’) looks (I’m not sure how it’s pronounced) like a cross between a punctuation mark and a throat-clear.

      “Apothegms are great for Hallmark cards…..”? Really? Not my nana’s Hallmarks. “pithy”? “terse”?

  14. mimi

      I just learned a new word:
      apothegm- a short, pithy, instructive saying; a terse remark or aphorism.

      “great word, by the way….”
      I like “sounds like opossum… tastes like chicken”. Not exactly sure what you mean here, I just like those words together. They’re funny.
      To me it (‘apothegm’) looks (I’m not sure how it’s pronounced) like a cross between a punctuation mark and a throat-clear.

      “Apothegms are great for Hallmark cards…..”? Really? Not my nana’s Hallmarks. “pithy”? “terse”?

  15. VD

      Edward, Have you published any books?

  16. VD

      Edward, Have you published any books?

  17. stephen

      Oh man, buzzkill, hahahah…. I was at a party recently, and I have these three friends who are all in a band, and it was an after party with lots of bands, and this little twerp, who was barely out of high school and had “grown up listening to my friend’s band,” which seemed sort of weird, was standing there in a convo with me, my friend, and another band guy, and the twerp’s drunk, and he just sort of slurred something weird at me, like “Hey, we’re like in bands, what do YOU like do…” And I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t even laugh at the guy, didn’t seem sad, just seemed…………. [ ] So anyways, let’s not be lame to each other, gents.

  18. stephen

      Oh man, buzzkill, hahahah…. I was at a party recently, and I have these three friends who are all in a band, and it was an after party with lots of bands, and this little twerp, who was barely out of high school and had “grown up listening to my friend’s band,” which seemed sort of weird, was standing there in a convo with me, my friend, and another band guy, and the twerp’s drunk, and he just sort of slurred something weird at me, like “Hey, we’re like in bands, what do YOU like do…” And I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t even laugh at the guy, didn’t seem sad, just seemed…………. [ ] So anyways, let’s not be lame to each other, gents.

  19. stephen

      The meaner response would be like: “Have you WRITTEN any (good) books, publisher man? Is insight an item on a resume? Is your VD called “syphilitic snobbaciousness”?

  20. stephen

      The meaner response would be like: “Have you WRITTEN any (good) books, publisher man? Is insight an item on a resume? Is your VD called “syphilitic snobbaciousness”?

  21. Michael Kimball

      Hey Edward,
      One of the reasons that I’m pulling together these posts on some of the different elements of fiction writing is that is was always the little bits of advice, something that I could hold in my head — whether from a teacher, from something I read, or from another writer — that were the most useful thing to me as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do as a writer. And I know lots of writers who feel the same way. Also, my hope is that these will lead to a larger discussion – even if its just about the various punctuation camps.

  22. Michael Kimball

      Hey Edward,
      One of the reasons that I’m pulling together these posts on some of the different elements of fiction writing is that is was always the little bits of advice, something that I could hold in my head — whether from a teacher, from something I read, or from another writer — that were the most useful thing to me as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do as a writer. And I know lots of writers who feel the same way. Also, my hope is that these will lead to a larger discussion – even if its just about the various punctuation camps.

  23. Michael Kimball

      Thanks, Joe. But I don’t want to argue about commas. I like them, but I don’t want to argue about them. I find people rarely change their mind about punctuation.

  24. Michael Kimball

      Thanks, Joe. But I don’t want to argue about commas. I like them, but I don’t want to argue about them. I find people rarely change their mind about punctuation.

  25. Michael Kimball

      Yes, and I remember Brodkey’s stories using adverbs well.

  26. Michael Kimball

      Yes, and I remember Brodkey’s stories using adverbs well.

  27. jesusangelgarcia

      hey mimi, apothegm *sounds* like opossum (that’s what I meant… I peeped the pronunciation) and tastes like chicken is just, um, yeah… funny is good.

  28. jesusangelgarcia

      hey mimi, apothegm *sounds* like opossum (that’s what I meant… I peeped the pronunciation) and tastes like chicken is just, um, yeah… funny is good.

  29. mimi

      Oh, I get it. ‘Opossum’ with a lisp.

      But look:

      apothegm – (āp’ə-thěm’)* [APE-uh-them)
      opossum – (ə-pŏs’əm)* [uh-POS-uhm]

      Having not previously known the pronunciation of ‘apothegm’, and having not looked up until just now the pronunciation of ‘apothegm’, and having studied biology, and, thus, being familiar with the word ‘apoprotein’ :

      apoprotein – (ape’-ə-prō’tēn’)* [APE-uh-pro-teen]
      n. A polypeptide that combines with a prosthetic group to form a conjugated protein.

      I was pronouncing ‘apothegm’ APE-uh-them (a la ‘apoprotein’) and not uh-POTH-uhm (‘opossum’ with a lisp).

      So I did not get your joke, which, still, I liked and which (the word combination of) I thought was funny, even thought the joke I read was so different from the joke you intended. I thought you meant something along the lines of “If one follows one or some or any or many or all of these apothegms (you listed your favorites) that one might worry that one’s writing might, uh-oh, sound like we’re having ‘possum for dinner, but in fact one’s writing will sound real good, and guess what! goody! we’re actually having chicken for dinner, and boy does chicken taste good! and that means one’s writing will actually be good and that is a good thing.”

      * from dictionary.com

  30. mimi

      Oh, I get it. ‘Opossum’ with a lisp.

      But look:

      apothegm – (āp’ə-thěm’)* [APE-uh-them)
      opossum – (ə-pŏs’əm)* [uh-POS-uhm]

      Having not previously known the pronunciation of ‘apothegm’, and having not looked up until just now the pronunciation of ‘apothegm’, and having studied biology, and, thus, being familiar with the word ‘apoprotein’ :

      apoprotein – (ape’-ə-prō’tēn’)* [APE-uh-pro-teen]
      n. A polypeptide that combines with a prosthetic group to form a conjugated protein.

      I was pronouncing ‘apothegm’ APE-uh-them (a la ‘apoprotein’) and not uh-POTH-uhm (‘opossum’ with a lisp).

      So I did not get your joke, which, still, I liked and which (the word combination of) I thought was funny, even thought the joke I read was so different from the joke you intended. I thought you meant something along the lines of “If one follows one or some or any or many or all of these apothegms (you listed your favorites) that one might worry that one’s writing might, uh-oh, sound like we’re having ‘possum for dinner, but in fact one’s writing will sound real good, and guess what! goody! we’re actually having chicken for dinner, and boy does chicken taste good! and that means one’s writing will actually be good and that is a good thing.”

      * from dictionary.com

  31. mimi

      *even though*, not *even thought*

  32. mimi

      *even though*, not *even thought*

  33. jesusangelgarcia

      that we’re still talking about this is even funnier!

      funnier than that is the way you originally interpreted my joke. yowza… what a mind you have, mimi.

      to clarify, the pronunciation I found for apothegm is here:

      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/apothegm

      which is different from yours, and different from what I thought (I saw the italics as the stress… I should have used my old-school dictionary… I’m getting lazy and I guess don’t know how to read the online diacriticals).

      at this point, I’m happy w/ banning this word from my vocabulary. can I get a witness?

  34. jesusangelgarcia

      that we’re still talking about this is even funnier!

      funnier than that is the way you originally interpreted my joke. yowza… what a mind you have, mimi.

      to clarify, the pronunciation I found for apothegm is here:

      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/apothegm

      which is different from yours, and different from what I thought (I saw the italics as the stress… I should have used my old-school dictionary… I’m getting lazy and I guess don’t know how to read the online diacriticals).

      at this point, I’m happy w/ banning this word from my vocabulary. can I get a witness?

  35. mimi

      Oh great. Now I have to go look up diacritical.

  36. mimi

      Oh great. Now I have to go look up diacritical.

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