Craft of Prose Reading and Writing Exercise: Beautiful Sentences

Here is the writing exercise my substitute will do with my Craft of Prose class on Thursday, when I am in Chicago. I have redacted my students’ sentences, which are necessary to complete the writing exercise portion, in order to protect their creative work.

Beautiful Sentences

As a class, listen to each of these sentences and discuss in depth why they are — or might be considered to be — beautiful. Are there sounds you’re reacting to, e.g. rhyme, similar consonant sounds (consonance), similar vowel sounds (assonance), etc.? Does the sentence contain repetition? How does the form of the sentence, the syntax, support or deny the content?

“How wild it was, to let it be.”
—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
—Zora Neale Hurston, opening of Their Eyes Were Watching God

“That great grand plosive second syllable. Quite the motherfucker, that.”
—Colson Whitehead, Apex Hides the Hurt

“There, in front of us, where a broken row of houses stood between us and the harbour, and where the eye encountered all sorts of stratagems, such as pale-blue and pink underwear cakewalking on a clothesline, or a lady’s bicycle and a striped cat oddly sharing a rudimentary balcony of cast iron, it was most satisfying to make out among the jumbled angles of roofs and walls, a splendid ship’s funnel, showing from behind the clothesline as something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, ending of Speak, Memory

“I milked the cows, I churned the butter, I stored the cheese, I baked the bread, I brewed the tea, I washed the clothes, I dressed the children; the cat meowed, the dog barked, the horse neighed, the mouse squeaked, the fly buzzed, the goldfish living in a bowl stretched its jaws; the door banged shut, the stairs creaked, the fridge hummed, the curtains billowed up, the pot boiled, the gas hissed through the stove, the tree branches heavy with snow crashed against the roof; my heart beat loudly thud! thud!, tiny beads of water grew folds, I shed my skin…”
—Jamaica Kincaid, “The Letter from Home”

“Old lovers go the way of old photographs, bleaching out gradually as in a slow bath of acid: first the moles and pimples, then the shadings.”
—Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
—Toni Morrison, Sula

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, ending of The Great Gatsby

“It sounded suddenly directly above his head and when he looked it was not there but went on tolling and with each passing moment he felt an urgent need to run and hide as though the bell were sounding a warning and he stood on a street corner in a red glare of light like that which came from the furnace and he had a big package in his arms so wet and slippery and heavy that he could scarcely hold onto it and he wanted to know what was in the package and he stopped near an alley corner and unwrapped in and the paper fell away and he saw—it was his own head—his own head lying with black face and half-closed eyes and lips parted with white teeth showing and hair wet with blood and the red glare grew brighter like light shining down from a red moon and red stars on a hot summer night and he was sweating and breathless from running and the bell clanged so loud that he could hear the iron tongue clapping against the metal sides each time it swung to and fro and he was running over a street paved with black coal and his shoes kicked tiny lumps rattling against tin cans and he knew that very soon he had to find some place to hide but there was no place and in front of him white people were coming to ask about the head from which the newspapers had fallen and which was now slippery with blood in his naked hands and he gave up and stood in the middle of the street in the red darkness and cursed the booming bell and the white people and felt that he did not give a damn what happened to him and when the people closed in he hurled the bloody head squarely into their faces dongdongdong….”
—Richard Wright, Native Son

“A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or saber done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.”
—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
—James Joyce, ending of “The Dead”

“after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”
—James Joyce, ending of Ulysses

“Blame it or praise it, there is no denying the wild horse in us. To gallop intemperately; fall on the sand tired out; to feel the earth spin; to have—positively—a rush of friendship for stones and grasses, as if humanity were over, and as for men and women, let them go hang”
—Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room

More on Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt
Syntax supplies language most of its…markers, and we’ve known many of them since childhood. A period marks a sentence as a discrete structure, composed primarily of moveable parts or chunks (noun phrase, verb phrase, etc.) that are processed by the brain sequentially. As soon as group of words makes tentative sense, we file it away temporarily, according to its relationship to the fundament, and look for the next one. In language as in music, repetition—whether lexical (the same words) or grammatical (the same function for the words) or syntactical (the same arrangement of the words)—also marks phrases or chunks. As in music, these units can also be grouped into even larger chunks, paragraphs or stanzas, to form astonishingly elaborate but comprehensible structures….Like the engine of a train, the fundament may appear almost anywhere in the sentence, pushing some of its boxcars and pulling others

Revision Exercise: Beautiful Sentences

Select one of the following sentences you wrote, offered to you anonymously in a hat, and begin the exercise.

  1. Read the sentence you drew, and answer the following questions in your writing journal:
    1. Is this sentence grammatically correct?
    2. Is it clear? Do you know what’s going on?
    3. Read the sentence aloud. Is it a beautiful sentence? Why or why not?
  2. Get your bearings on the sentence’s style:
    1. Is it in the active or passive voice? Would it work better if it was revised to address the voice?
    2. Is it in the past, present, or future tense? What tense would make the sentence seem more immediate and exciting?
    3. What is the point of view of the sentence?
  3. Interrogate the sentence further:
    1. Is there any cliche language here?
    2. Is there any redundant, excess, and/or unnecessary language here? Example: “I successfully catch the ball” could be revised to “I catch the ball,” and it would still mean the same thing.
  4. Revise the sentence so that it is beautiful! (5–7 minutes.)

After everyone has finished revising the sentence, each person should write their revised version of the sentence on the board. Once all of the sentences are on the board, each person should read the original sentence they drew as well as their revised version. The class will vote on whether the original or the revised sentences is more “beautiful” and why it is so.

After everyone has shared, the class should vote on the top three revised sentences on the board and discuss why these, out of all of the sentences, are the most beautiful.

“Spin” Reading and Writing Exercise for ENG 2031

For “Spin,” students will be negotiating subtext, rumor, dramatic irony, subjectivity, objectivity, and context in our readings and their own work. Students will discuss the elements of reportage and rumor in their icebreaker text, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and then discern the difference between Rowling’s subtext and the subtext, however erroneous, read into the actions of the protagonists by other characters. Students will likewise watch a clip from the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and identify elements of dialogue, actions, body language, and gestures that reveal subtext, and then they will do a writing exercise in which they describe the innocent actions of a character in public and then re-describe them in the point of view of a law enforcement official, private investigator, reporter, or suspicious bystander who misconstrues, willfully or automatically, the actions of that innocent person.

“Debate” Writing Exercise for Craft of Prose

In the “Debate” writing exercise, students are asked to create two characters—political candidates—with unique syntax and diction in order to debate a phony issue, like whether muffins should actually be called cake, for example. In doing so, they learn how to format dialogue; to progress action through dialogue; and how to demonstrate a character’s values, motivations, and background through dialogue.

Guess Who Reading Discussion Prompt for Craft of Prose

In this reading discussion prompt, students are asked to consider what elements contribute to our understanding of character in this “Guess Who” game in which students draw a character who appears in chapters 3–12 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and then describe them by answering a series of questions. They will use their descriptions to come up with three clues about the character: one is a concrete detail about the character’s appearance, the second is to identify a scene in which they appear, and the third is a literary craft element that helps reveal their character.

Writing Exercise: “View-master” for Online Prose Workshop

Last week, in ENG 2016OL: Online Prose Workshop, my students read “One Week in Liberia” and “Speaking in Tongues” (pgs. 110–148) of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind. Read “Damn Cold in February: Buddy Holly, View-master, and the A-Bomb” by Joni Tevis and Creative Nonfiction Primer on Moodle. They then completed the following writing exercise on a discussion forum.

 

Writing Exercise: “View-master”

Free-write 250 words about a trip you took to some place that interested you. It could be as dramatic as Liberia (a la Zadie Smith) or as local as your post office.

“All in Good Sport”: A Writing Exercise for Craft of Prose

In this exercise, I ask my Craft of Prose students to think about the ways in which one element of their worlds—sports—can reveal a great deal about cultural values in addition to demonstrating some of what’s possible. With the class having just read about the Quidditch World Cup in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and been introduced briefly to other examples of games popular fiction, they will create their own sport, have a partner demonstrate, in a charades-like fashion, how that sport works, so that the writer m then ask themselves if they effectively described the sport in “All in Good Sport.”

Fall 2016 Required Texts & Course Descriptions

ENG 2015: Poetry Workshop

American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world. In doing so, I’ll ask you to not only read and write poetry but also begin to look at your surroundings as a poet would. This requires close examination of images, scrutiny of your thoughts and feelings about subject matter, and consideration for other points of view. Additionally, you will be asked to think deeply about language, in terms of its meanings, its sounds, its rhythms, and its forms. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. As a means of introduction to the craft of poetry, students will submit original poems for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers.  In addition to workshop, you will be asked to engage with the writing of contemporary poets, to read like a writer would. I’ve chosen Poetry magazine as our required text so that you will have a lens through which to examine the current landscape of American poetry and to see that even today poets are still trying to “redeem the world in words.”

Required Texts

  1. Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. ISBN: 978-0151011957.
  2. Poetry magazine student subscription, available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/subscribe

 

ENG 2016OL: Online Prose Workshop

This course will focus on the prose forms of the short story and personal essay, and emphasize drafting and revision. Students will respond to published prose and write their own pieces for workshop, a collaborative discussion about the effects of a writer’s choices on readers. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” We will use Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories, Almost Famous Women, and Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, Changing My Mind, as a touchstone for learning writing skills and discovering genre conventions. My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Required Texts

  1. Bergman, Megan Mayhew. Almost Famous Women.  Scribner, 2015. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1476788814.
  2. Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Penguin, 2010. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-0143117957.

 

ENG 2031: Craft of Prose

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that “the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.” In this course, we will shoot high and aim to write so richly and uniquely about our fictional worlds that they will be rendered in our readers’ imaginations as palpable, the words and places indistinguishable, symbiotic, “real.” We will take as our lodestars a number of texts, including Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a short story collection by Centenary’s fall 2016 visiting author Megan Mayhew Bergman, and one of the Harry Potter novels. We will translate these immersive reading experiences into writing skills through discussion, exercises, and workshop. Several times throughout the semester, students will turn in original writing for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers, and later revise one of the pieces using the comments received in workshop. Additionally, we will play host to Centenary’s Fall 2016 visiting writer, Megan Mayhew Bergman, and prepare accordingly. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Texts and Supplies

  1. Bergman, Megan Mayhew. Almost Famous Women.  Scribner, 2015. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1476788814.*
  2. Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt, 1978. 165 pages. ISBN: 978-0156453806. +
  3. Everett, Percival. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Graywolf Press, 2009. 234 pages. ISBN: 978-1555975272. +
  4. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic Paperbacks, 2002. 752 pages. ISBN: 978-0439139601.*
  5. Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories. Vintage, 2014. +
  6. Writing Journal

 

ENG 3099: Special Topics: Literary Editing & Publishing

“Editing, like writing, is fundamentally about composing a world,” Peter Gizzi writes in his essay “On the Conjunction of Editing and Composition.” In this course, students will learn how this act of composition takes place, from submissions to printing, by reading first-hand accounts of editors in the profession and through practical application. This reading intensive course will challenge you to read like an editor rather than a reader, writer, or critic, and ask you to consider how literary magazines contribute to literary culture. You will be exposed to many different types of editing styles, and you will be asked to begin to cultivate your own approach to editing a literary magazine or journal while being introduced to all the skillsets needed to create a publication. We will use literary magazines as a case study for all of our publishing inquiries, but we will likewise touch upon the book-publishing process and market. The class will include an investigation into the history of literary magazines; editorial meetings in which students will evaluate and debate sample pieces; papers that analyze literary magazines, editorial roles, and the state of contemporary publishing; and a final editorial project in which student groups will “compose a world” through a mock literary magazine by developing its mission, design, and content. In many ways, this course acts as a kind of introductory practicum for students interested in pursuing future publishing opportunities as editors, production editors, and as writers.

Texts and Supplies

  1. Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type, 2nd edition. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
  2. Kurowski, Travis. Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine. Atticus Books, 2013.
  3. Art supplies, paper, etc. and whatever else you may need to create your final editorial project.