I’m Lou Franco and this is episode 38 of Write While True.
Write While True is an infinite loop, and that’s because I think of writing as an infinite game. A game I play for fun and to get better at it. Like a game of catch.
So in each episode, I’ll tell you something I learned about writing, and then I’ll throw you the ball with a writing challenge or a prompt.
I’m reading a book by Stanley Fish called How to Write a Sentence. I found this book by Googling that exact question because I wanted to find anything that might be a fit for what I’m podcasting about this season.
In this season, season 3, I’m exploring a question that I came up with while learning to sketch. In my sketching lessons, we started with just making marks on paper to learn how our tools worked. I like using charcoal pencils, so I made marks, I smudged them, I tried to erase them. I wasn’t drawing anything in particular, just learning how the pencil worked with different kinds of paper.
I started to wonder what the equivalent was for writing. In June, I wrote a blog post called The Tools and Materials of Writing where I explored this question. I wrote
After thinking about it for a bit, I think a basic part of writing is sentence construction. Sentences are the things you build paragraphs from. And you use paragraphs to build bigger works. Sentences are like marks on a sketch—a basic building block.
If manipulating a piece of charcoal on paper in different ways is the way to practice making marks. What is the thing I could do to practice making sentences?
And then I concluded:
The tool you are learning to manipulate is clauses. Simple sentences are simple. A complex sentence, however, is made up of clauses that are used give nuance to a complex thought, which you express by ordering them.
I elaborated on this idea in episode 28 of the podcast, and that became the first episode of this season. All the rest of the episodes up to this one are different variations on that idea.
In that episode, episode 28, I came up with a exercise where you pick one of your nuanced ideas and break it into bullet points to get some clauses. Then, you try to write a coherent, logical, complex sentence that relates the clauses.
I do this when I am writing and I can’t seem to get something out straight. I break it down like I described and then I build it back up.
But, doing this requires me to have something to say.
Stanley Fish has another idea.
First of all, I have to point out that he and I came at this from similar starting points. On the first page of his book, he is talking about how learning to write is like learning to paint and he says
You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other.
But wouldn’t the equivalent of paint be words rather than sentences? Actually, no, because while you can brush or even drip paint on a canvas and make something interesting happen, just piling up words, one after the other, won’t do much of anything […]
So, he thinks the minimum viable mark in writing is the sentence. I think it’s the clause, but I think you should use them to make a sentence. So, in the end, I think we agree, which makes sense because we started at the same place, from painting, drawing, sketching.
Where we disagree is what those sentences should be about. I thought that they should be used to express your nuanced ideas. He thinks they should be about nothing.
Fish wants you to practice making sentences without worrying about content. He elaborates on this idea in chapter 3 where he says:
It may sound paradoxical, but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales. For the purposes of becoming a facile (in the positive sense) writer of sentences, the sentences you practice with should have as little meaning as possible. Indeed, nonsense sentences—sentences that display a logical arrangement of components, but are without a readily discernable message—may be the best materials.
In that chapter, to take this idea to an extreme, he quotes verses from Jabberwocky, which mixes English words with nonsense words to form sentences that are still somehow coherent. He has other nonsense examples from Noam Chomsky and James Joyce.
But, he knows that “your eventual goal is to be able to write forcefully about the issues that matter to you”. He just thinks you need to practice your scales.
The book has many exercises to help you do this. I’ll share one after this sponsor break
Write While True is sponsored by me. I made something that I think is a good companion to the podcast.
In the very first episode I told you about how I start every day by doing morning pages. I do 20-30 minutes of stream-of-consciousness writing and it helped me learn to write on demand. In episode 19, I followed that up with talking about prompted morning pages. This helps me not worry about what I’m going to write about.
So, I made 4 morning pages journals and put them up on Amazon. You can get them by going to https://loufranco.com/journals. Each journal has 30 days worth of prompts, with 2 pages for each prompt. It’s an 8.5 x 11 sized journal, so it takes me about 30 minutes to fill the two pages, which is perfect for morning pages.
So, go listen to episodes 1 and 19 and then go try out a journal. I think by the end of the 30 days you’ll learn what it feels like to write on demand and it will spill over into your normal writing.
Ok, back to the show.
Stanley Fish and I agree that you should practice forming sentences from clauses and that that exercise is like learning about drawing materials or practicing scales. You don’t need an object to draw or a song to play, and we don’t need a subject to write about.
We are trying to learn how to string words together that result in a logical and grammatical sentence. It’s only important that the relationships between the clauses is understood.
This exercise comes from Chapter 2. He suggests that you take any simple three or four word sentence with just a subject, verb, and object and expand it into an ever longer and longer sentence. First with a clause, then add on a few more, then try to add on a ridiculous number of clauses. The result will not be a good sentence, but it should be a logical one. It should be well-formed even if it doesn’t have interesting content.
Let me give you an example. There’s one in the book, but I made this one just to practice. Let’s start with the sentence “John ate a cheeseburger”. We could add a couple of clauses and end up with: “Before he went out, John ate a cheeseburger because he was hungry.” And we could build it more and more and we might end up with
Before he went out for the night, John, feeling a little hungry because he had skipped lunch, ate a cheeseburger, which he made using some of the leftover salad he had planned to eat but couldn’t because his Zoom meeting went for two hours even though he had been assured by his boss, who had just gotten back from his trip to Hawaii, which he kept bringing up, that the meeting would only last 30 minutes.
It’s not literature. It’s not meant to be. But it is grammatically well-formed, and I think you can follow it. One of the things to notice is that the various clauses are all happening at different points in time, and the sentence has to use words to make sure you understand that because the clauses aren’t in time-order.
Since this isn’t really writing, I think the perfect time to do this is in your morning pages. If you need a prompt, just pick any simple sentence (use mine: John ate a cheeseburger) and then go and try to make a longer one with a few clauses, then a few more and then try one of the really long ones. The goal is to make sure the relationship between the clauses makes sense.
This has been Write While True, a podcast where we love infinite loops as long as they’re fun.