Sentences Are the Pack Mules of Literature
On Tuesday, I wrote the post, 100 Most Beautiful Words, and tried to make the case that although words are wonderful, sentences are what’s important. That night, I sat down with Douglas Bauer’s The Stuff of Fiction and read the chapter devoted entirely to the sentence. Some things Bauer said stood out for me and I wanted to share them with you. First, Bauer says that “…sentences do the most utilitarian of work: they carry the story from our imagination to the reader. They are the pack mules of literature. They are principally and finally beasts of burden.” He goes on to say that “if we understand that sentences are our tools of utility, and I think we must, we can still get real exhilaration, and I think we should, from the breadth and the capacity of their utility.” He goes on to give examples how a writer can “shape and modulate sentences” so that they convey the story with clarity and impact.
Bauer provides examples and talks about word choice and verbs. There is one selection that struck me, and although I can’t give you the entire chapter (you should pick up this book), I hope here to convey some of what Bauer is getting at. He points to a few paragraphs from David Malouf’s novel Remembering Babylon. In this section, a young girl named Janet, who is tending to some bee hives, is suddenly swarmed upon by the bees. Look at this sentence:
Suddenly there was the sound of a wind getting up in the grove, though she did not feel the touch of it, and before she could complete the breath she had taken, or expel it in a cry, the swarm was on her, thickening so fast about her that it was as if night had fallen, just like that, in a single cloud.
Bauer talks about the use of the word “on.” Got that? The word “on.” Would you, seeing that word on it’s own, think it’s a beautiful word? A strong word? And yet, in this case, it’s the pack mule. He says it’s “perfectly chosen because it says absolutely everything, in its abruptness and brevity, about the suddenness and entirety of the bees’ action.” He says, “For all its immediacy, all its communication of an instantaneous enveloping, it is a strikingly dispassionate word. It’s not the least freighted; it carries no emotional heft; it has no particular disposition.” He says more. In fact, he devotes a two paragraphs to Malouf’s use of the word “on.”
Back to the scene. Janet remains calm as the bees swarm her and the hive owner, Mrs. Hutchence, comes with smoke to subdue the bees. Here is the last sentence and what Bauer has to say about:
Then the bitterness of smoke came to her throat, and the cloud began to lift, and there, through the gaps in herself, was Mrs. Hutchence with coils of smoke pouring out of her sleeves, and Gemmy, open-mouthed with a frame in his arms, and the bees, one by one, then in fistfuls, rolling off her, peeling away like a crust, till she stood in her own skin again, which was fresh where the air touched it, and only a few dozen foolish creatures were left that had got themselves caught and were butting with their furry heads and kicking, in a panic at being alone.
What a beautiful passage. The smoke pouring out of Mrs. Hutchence’s sleeves, the bees peeling away like a crust. The foolish creatures, the furry heads, the panic at being alone. And so wonderful that the bees are panicked, whereas Janet is not. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. But it’s not just the language, the words that Malouf has chosen. The structure itself mimics the action and mood of the scene. Bauer says, “It is a perfect representation, with all of those tumbling clauses, of the bees dropping and toppling as they fall away from her.” In other words, the tumbling sentence mimic the tumbling bees. Of course. Bauer says that Malouf, “…evokes that mood through sentences that are paradoxically, but fittingly, urgent and calm.”
The takeaway: Don’t focus so much on words. Focus on crafting your sentences, that is, using the right words in the right order. This is essence of the art.