Sentence and Form

Stanley Fish was a guest on Radio National’s Book Show this week.
The subject of the interview was his book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (Harper Collins, 2011).
The podcast of his interview can be found here.
Amongst many fascinating points I was moved by the discussion of a sentence from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

I am looking forward to reading the book, more so after reading Daniel Wallace’s review.

Fish argues that sentences, not words, are the building blocks of prose, because it is the connections, the “inexorable logic of syntactic structures,” that give words meaning. He believes that the best way to improve your sentence-making is to study the syntactic form of good sentences and then imitate those forms with practice exercises, the way musicians do scales. Place whatever content you like into a preset syntactic framework, and allow the syntax to settle in your head. Form, and only form, is the key to better writing; worry about content later.

I have been writing about writing in this blog so Stanley Fish’s discussion of sentences resonates with me. I like the idea of composition and its use of grammar and syntax.I like the idea of exploring forms of sentences too. The discussion of Martin Luther King’s sentence was the hook for me.
I think I will need to look at Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller too as part of my engagement with the theory and practice of writing.
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    • Daniel
      I am delighted you found my post. I thought your review was excellent. Stanley Fish’s interview on Radio National was delightful.
      Best wishes


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