Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The 'Organ' of Sentences . . .

Verlyn Kinkenborg

For the longest time -- to borrow a useful cliché of exaggeration that Billy Joel made such fine use of -- I thought Verlyn Klinkenborg was a woman, and I liked 'her' writing so much that I made a point to read 'her' columns on "Language" carefully whenever they appeared, and always with admiration and interest.

Last May, Ms. Soo Kyung Lee (aka Kathy Lee), assistant to director of my department, approached me with a proposal that I help develop a new writing course, and she described as paradigm a graduate course at Harvard taught by one of the editors of the New York Times, who also writes a column on language.

Intrigued, since I read the Times daily and make a point of reading the language columns, I inquired about the name.

"Verlyn Klinkenborg," she announced, naming the person under whom she'd studied.

"Oh!" I exclaimed. "I read her columns."

"No," Soo Kyung corrected, "you read his columns."

I thus learned something important . . . and better understood the column's descriptions of hard farmwork and harsh wintertime chores, now that I knew that a man was describing those heavy lifting tasks.

Soo Kyung kindly gave me Mr. Klinkenborg's email address and emphasized that he is very approachable. I've not written him, though, having little to say other than, "I like your column." Nothing newsworthy about that. Everyone likes his column, or everyone who counts and who undoubtedly knew his gender all along, so I'd only be embarrassing myself if I were to confess my ignorance in hope of justifying an email by providing him some amusement.

Anyway, I read his most recent column yesterday and thought about the advice provided there. He posed a question, "Where do sentences come from?"

Initially, I expected a sort of historical question in that query, namely, where the definition of a sentence -- as a paired subject and predicate that together express a complete thought -- originally comes from, i.e., where this concept happened to have developed historically.

His answer, however, was not historical but metaphysical: sentences come from the mind, that origin, even organ, of thought . . . except that, echoing Gertrude Stein, he tells us, "There is no where there." Hence metaphysical.

He nevertheless offered some advice on calling forth sentences from that mysterious "no-where" place:
So experiment a little. Make a sentence of your own in your head. Don't write it down. Any kind of sentence will do, but keep it short. Rearrange it. Reword it. Then throw it out. Make another. Rearrange. Reword. Discard. You can do this anywhere, at any time. Do it again and again, without inscribing anything. Experiment with rhythm. Let the sentences come and go. Evaluate them, play with them, but don't cling to them. If you find a sentence you really like, let it go and look for the next one. The more you do this, the easier it will be to remember the sentences you want to keep. Better yet, you'll know that you can replace any sentence you lose with one that's just as good.
I found this interesting because it's a technique I learned on my own, one that informs and forms my writing but that I cannot pass along to my students because English is not their mother tongue.

It's otherwise sound advice . . .

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