The E-Channel presents the words and wisdom of the writer Charles Johnson. It's Charles Johnson LIVE ! It was created by E. Ethelbert Miller (that's what the E stands for) in January 2011. It's a one year project in which Miller will interview Johnson about his books, beliefs, and various matters of the heart and mind. The E-Channel presents Johnson's own voice. Every word is his. They are responses to questions asked each week by Miller.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
TELLING IT LONG AND TELLING IT SHORT
E. Ethelbert Millers asks: "In your fiction writing you seem to prefer the longer sentence over the short one. Is this for sound, content, or simply you as author following the flow of the narrative you created? Are you aware of sentence length? Would you consider this your style?"
OK, you got me. I surrender. I confess:
If I don't control myself, my sentences in literary fiction naturally tend to run long, with image and idea building upon image and idea, rolling and ribboning out, sometimes twisting and torquing dialectically, from thesis to antithesis, and spiced with colons and semi-colons and parenthetical asides (such as this) until I simply can't pack any more into them. I've always seen the sentence and paragraph as units of energy to be released. So yes, I use long sentences for rhythm and music. I most certainly would always follow one with a short sentence. As I used to teach my students, the technique here is take the simple sentence, then "complicate" (i.e., extend) the subject, the verb, then the object.
To be frank, I think the elegant, long sentence is a thing of beauty. A self-contained entity worthy of study all by itself. Consider this sentence by Dylan Thomas from Quite Early One Morning:
"I was born in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War---an ugly, lovely town (or so it was and is to me), crawling, sprawling by a long and splendid curving shore where truant boys and sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships streaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking outcast dogs; made castles and forts and harbours and race tracks in the sand; and on Saturday afternoons listened to the brass band, watched the Punch and Judy, or hung about on the fringes of the crowd to hear the fierce religious speakers who shouted at the sea, as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white-horsed and full of fishes."
In Copy and Compose: A Guide to Prose Style (Prentice-Hall, 1969), the editors Winston Weathers and Otis Winchester say this about Thomas's "master sentence":
"In this magnificent sentence, loose and long, constituting an entire paragraph, great use is made of details placed in various forms of the series. After the initial statement the sentence proceeds descriptively, using double adjectives in front of nouns---'ugly, lovely town'---and double participles after the noun---'crawling, sprawling'---along with many instances of balance---'so it was and is to me,' 'long and splendid,' 'idled and paddled,' and 'bright with oranges and loud with lions.' Note also the four-part series used: 'castles and forts and harbours and race tracks.' In the sentence abundant use is also made of sound devices: alliteration---'wicked and wrong'---and rhyme---'crawling, sprawling.' And you will note the terminal rhythm of the sentence, after the long sweep of clauses and phrases: 'as though it were wicked and wrong to roll in and out like that, white-horsed and full of fishes,' with 'white-horsed' a repositioned adjective, acting as a brake on the rhythmical flow."
We find the same detail and description, the same careful layering that is the result of much revision, and the same attention to balanced construction in the following sentence fromSamuel Delany's Flight from Nevèryön:
"No doubt in the palace his rough, if scarred good looks would cause (he dreamed) a few noble ladies to catch their breath; and perhaps even once, at some great party, into which he'd wandered only by accident, he'd exchange a few lines of banter with the Child Empress herself, whose reign is glittering and glorious, causing waves of jealousy and ire among the lords gathered at the affair, so that, after a month or so of such dalliance, his patroness (who by this time, would hopefully have taken up another lover, perhaps a young nobleman whose arrogant ways would make her fondly recall her nights and noons with him) would finally secure him an officer's commission in the Imperial Army, at some fascinating outpost in some exotic mountain hold, sending him on to who-knows-what great and gainful adventures..."
No creative writing student escaped my workshops for 33 years without doing as one of their many exercises master sentences like the ones above.