Let’s Pretend We’re in Class Together

And in this particular class (meeting on Mondays from 5 to 9 p.m.) let’s pretend we’re focusing on The Sentence. That’s right. I’m in graduate school and I’m spending 8 weeks just studying the sentence. This information either thrills you or makes you feel very, very sleepy.

If it makes you feel sleepy, your work here is done. Thanks for the click-through but you should feel no pressure to stay for the rest of this post!

If it thrills you, then keep reading! I thought you might be interested in how my submitted sentence for the week changed during workshop.

Here’s the scene: you can sit beside me around the big conference-style table in our classroom/computer lab. My classmates have not given permission for me to release their names or likenesses here, but I can let you know they are generous, funny, and smart. You’d like them.

Our professor projects the sentence onto the big screen in the front of the room and reads it out loud. Here’s mine (from a personal essay I’m working on):

There were two unexpected results from my new reading habits: first, I got hooked on the stories, and, second, I realized I had unintentionally found the long-hidden portal into conversations with boys.

As my professor said, “It’s fine, isn’t it? Gets the job done. But what can we do? What options do we have?” And then we spent probably 15 minutes discussing this sentence, crossing out words and putting them back again, rearranging the order of the elements, anything to find a clearer way to say what I was trying to say. Here’s what we came up with:

My new reading habits produced unexpected results: first, I got hooked on the stories, and, second, I found the long-hidden portal into conversations with boys.

What do you notice? It’s shorter for one thing. We cut out redundant words: you don’t need “realized … unintentionally” when you already have “unexpected.” Also, “There were” or any version of the to be verbs make boring beginnings to sentences. They take up space, really. So we cut that also. Now the sentence gets right to business.

Some of the sentences we worked on didn’t get shorter, we added to them instead. Maybe there was room for description (my grandmother’s blue and white gingham apron vs. my apron) or specificity (the tall pines vs. the trees).

It was a fun exercise and made me think about how much time could really be spent on a piece of writing in revision. As a poet, this exercise is perfect because a good poem is often just a few sentences put together. Each word in a poem has to do a lot of work. I’m used to the sentence-by-sentence game with a poem, but I realized that it works for prose as well.

If you want to try it, start by selecting three or so of your own sentences (from different works) and just tear them apart. Don’t be afraid to try things. We found that if we dismissed ideas too quickly we ended up without many changes. Often it wasn’t the first idea that worked, but we had to see that idea before we landed on the best idea. (Note: I think this might be best – to start with, at least – as a group exercise. I know I’m not as critical of my own work as I am of someone else’s. And I seemed to have NO ideas for how to change my sentence until I heard other people begin to talk about where they saw room for change.)

Don’t think of it as fixing your sentences. Because that will make you skip right over sentences that are fine now. Think of it as discovering new possibilities in your sentences. You may not need to correct a mistake; you may just want to find out what else you can do. It’s a fun little game.

See you next week! Don’t be late.

One Word 365 for 2014: Sow

1 a :  to scatter (as seed) upon the earth for growth; broadly 
2 b :  to strew with or as if with seed
3 c :  to introduce into a selected environment 
4 d :  to set in motion :  <sow suspicion>
5 e :  to spread abroad 

I like the One Word 365 idea. Instead of New Year’s resolutions, it asks you to search that unseen depth of yourself for a single word that you can use for the year as a guide. I like to sit quietly for a few minutes and just say words to myself until one sort of “sticks” or feels “right.”

That’s what happened with last year’s word Devotion, and it’s turned out to be significant. I narrowed my focus of study down to creative writing and then even further to poetry. It’s been a perfect fit. I love the challenge and the work. I’m writing bad poems and some that have promise. In any case, I’m writing and learning and rewriting. I’m reading as much poetry as I can find: decoding how Plath uses unexpected words, how Bishop works in received forms, how Kenyon exposes an image. I devoted myself and have been rewarded personally and in the very real terms of an MFA fellowship at Creighton.

This year I feel drawn to the word Sow. I know it has a lot to do with my writing because I’ll start submitting in earnest this summer and fall. But it also has to do with my life in general, I think. Sowing healthy habits into my family. Sowing love into my relationships. Sowing a hunger for learning into my students. Always and in everything, sowing hope into the darkness of the world.

It’s work, I know. I’m not pretending it will be a clean or easy process. But I can only prepare my own soil. In everyone and everything else, I can only plant a seed. Only toss my poems out for the editors to accept or reject. Only remind my son that his online activity is as real as his face-to-face interactions. Only push seeds of unconditional love and acceptance into the hearts of my smart and beautiful daughters and hope their soil gives it food to grow.

I can only sow. And I’m hoping that remembering that will help take off the pressure and the fear of how my seeds are going to be received and just let them go. I can only sow.

So how about you? Have you considered a One Word 365 for 2014? I’d love to know what it is if you want to share it in the comments. And feel free to blog about it and sign up here with the other One Word people. Or just hold it close to your own heart and make everyone wonder. Your call.