In Priscilla Long’s helpful text, The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she describes the list sentence as a compression technique employed by “superb, first-rate, virtuoso writers” to striking effect and recommends them as an opportunity to both play with sound and improve the quality of less than stellar passages.
After a hand full of examples from contemporary work, she then asks one to jump into a exercise invoking a setting or person with such a beast. Ok, but before we embark on our own writing, let’s conduct a random survey.
Here are sentences that I gleaned from a casual selection of texts on my own bookshelves:
From Eudora Welty’s autobiographical, One Writer’s Beginnings:
The Andrews Branch my mother came from represents the mix most usual in the Southeast –English, Scottish, Irish, with a dash of French Hugenont.
From Mary Miller’s short story collection, Big World:
He had a sister who traveled the world on a boat with her sea captain husband. She sent us things through the mail: statutes of Buddha, first edition books, turquoise bracelets.
From Edna O’Brien’s novel, Wild Decembers:
A few scattered houses, the old fort, lime-dank and jabbery and from the great whooshing belly of the lake between grassland and callow land, a road, sluicing the little fortresses of ash and elder, a crooked road to the mouth of the mountain.
And from Lorrie Moore’s new collection, Bark:Stories (which I highly recommend):
Ira’s new house, though it was in what his realtor referred to as ‘a lovely, pedestrian neighborhood,’ abutting the streets named after presidents, boasting, instead, streets named after fishing flies (Caddis, Hendrickson, God-Ribbed Hare’s Ear Road), was full of slow drains, leaky burners, stopped-up pipes, and excellent dust for scrawling curse words.
Please share your own “gleanings” in the comments of the post, and on then full-steam into the exercise.
Thinking about a recent trip I made to Biloxi, I wrote this about a section of the beachfront:
Even now, almost nine years after Katrina, I am still struck by the absence of things rather than their presence. Gone are the fast food outlets, the boats, the umbrellas, the glittering streetlights, and even the median. The sand has been replaced by the red dirt of construction, by re-bar dangling from limp concrete, and by parking lots half-swallowed by weeds that stink of bird shit and piss.
Hmm, might be on to an essay there. Have to get on that. In the meantime, let’s ponder why in Long’s examples, so many passages are from poets-turned-essayist.
Well, for one, poets are well-practiced in precise word selection, and for another, they usually have heightened skills in close-observation. Most writers will find that even a casual dabbling in poetry can produce extraordinary improvement in your prose writing. I recommend Margo Roby’s weekly Poetry Prompts FreeForall for a round-up of stimulating exercises.
You can also improve your prose by broadening your reading horizons. You might start with Deep South Magazine’s 2014 Summer Reading List or read your way through the states with Andrea Reads America. And if you crave more bite-size selections, try Sundog List’s Friday Rex roundups. There’s always something good to be found there.
Also, might be worth a visit to #ThisBook for a smattering of videos on books that have inspired other writers. Happy browsing, scribblenauts!