Lee K. Abbott and the Power of the Sentence
In remembrance of my former colleague, Lee K. Abbott, I offer the first sentence of his story, “Time and Fear and Somehow Love”:
Since, as she conceived it, the letter was to be the final word on the subject, she endeavored to start slowly, then lead up to, as fine drama does, those moments of lamentation, those periods—always potent and manifold—of ruin and dismay which are like, her daddy had said once, many wildcats with wings.
Lordy, what an opening, one full of music and power that depends on the art of the pause. Read the sentence out loud and notice where the commas direct you to slow your pace for just a moment. The structure of the sentence mirrors what it’s come to express—the slow build to “those moments of lamentation, those periods—always potent and manifold—of ruin and dismay. . . .” Notice the final use of the caesura at the end of the sentence—“. . .which are like, her daddy had said once. . . .”—before the completion of the simile—“many wildcats with wings.” That pause for breath sets the stage for the stunning comparison of our moments of ruin to the startling image of wildcats with wings. The sentence ends with a bang, and it’s unforgettable.
Lee Abbott was a maestro with language. The above is only one small example of what a virtuoso he was. We could take a deeper dive into the opening sentence of “Time and Fear and Somehow Love” and mark the prose rhythm by highlighting the stressed syllables, particularly the first syllable of “potent” and the first and third syllables of “manifold,” and think about how those stresses emphasize “those moments of lamentation” and lead to the words, “ruin” and “dismay,” whose stresses amp up the tension of the sentence even more, taking us to it climax, the alliterative, “wildcats with wings.” This is a sentence that has a rise, “as fine drama does.” A sentence can be a story. Lee Abbott knew that.
I encourage you to read the work of other writers aloud, so you can hear what they’re doing on the sentence level. Oh, sure, there are many other elements of craft to practice when writing, but perhaps it all begins with an appreciation of a well-made sentence. Someone reminded me yesterday that I once said a well-made sentence was an attempt at salvation. Think of everything in the world that mystifies us. Think of all we can’t understand. A man in Texas killed five members of a family, including an eight-year-old child, because they asked him to please stop firing his automatic rifle; the gunshots were keeping their baby awake. How do we make sense of something like that? So often, the world is without reason or shape. One thing we writers can do to try to control the chaos is to write beautiful sentences. They may be slight ammunition against all that threatens us, but words are what we have, and if we can put them in the right order, who knows? Maybe we can make a difference. At least, we can believe this is so, which in the end, may be enough to save us.
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