Turning a Phrase

Stanley Fish can turn a phrase, but more so, he is an acute explorer of finely crafted sentences. How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One is a fascinating little work that packs a heavy punch – that is, if you like thinking about the writing process.

Examples he uses are remarkable, leaving this reader grieved that he did not come up with the sentences himself. For instance, Fish makes mention of  Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s retort to his colleagues’ decision regarding the case, Lee v. Weisman (1992): “Interior decorating is a rock-hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.

Fish points out that “The sentence is itself a rock thrown at Scalia’s fellow justices in the majority; it is a projectile that picks up speed with every word; the acceleration is an effect of the two past participles “compared” and “practiced”; their economy does nto allow a pause or a taking of a breath, and the sentence hurtles toward what is both its semantic and real-life destinations: the “amateurs” who are sitting next to Scalia as he spits it out.” I am glad I was not on the receiving end of that bombshell!!

The point of writing and choosing words, as Fish asserts, is not about coming up with just the right words, but choosing them in relation with other words and placing them in just the right position; it’s both choice and placement! “Flaubert’s famous search for the “mot juste” was not a search for words that glow alone, but for words so precisely placed that in combination with other words, also precisely placed, they carve out a shape in space and time.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew this well. I am making a second attempt at The Great Gatsby and I must confess that Fitzgerald’s craftiness with words is distracting, almost forbidding me to enjoy the story and forcing me to think about his word choices and syntactical structure (yea, it’s an overstatement, but not by much). Here are some examples:

The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.

I followed him over a low whitewashed railroad fence, and we walked back a hundred yards along the road under Doctor Eckleburg’s persistent stare.

. . . then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

So, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Writing takes time and mental energy that drain the soul, but when a phrase is turned, it satisfies the thirst for expression, leaving a sense of accomplishment!


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