Beautiful Sentences

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In  her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose writes, “By now you may be asking: what is a beautiful sentence? The answer is that beauty, in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face.”

She says this and I completely agree with it but then she goes on to point out specifics about what makes a sentence beautiful. That’s when I started to disagree. In reading her examples, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was maybe something wrong with me since the sentences Prose uses to define “beauty” and “good sentences” didn’t speak to me the way they spoke to her.

Doctor Johnson’s sentence on page 39, for example, that Prose uses to exemplify a good sentence felt wordy and overstated and, to me, the rhythm felt off. While the sentence is easy to understand it’s not exactly what I’d call beautiful.

This is the sentence:

It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.

And while Prose says “the quality that this sentence shares in common with all good sentences is first and most obviously clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.” I agree that the sentence, though long, is clear. But Prose goes on to say, “Despite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete.” I disagree.

Perhaps Prose is talking to (readers like) me when she says “the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word.” I love to read but I’m not always the most patient reader, I admit. As a recovering event planner, my motto has often been “keep it moving!” I tend to read fast and even skip a few words here and there when things get overly descriptive for me. And there are times when I need to go back and reread because I missed something critical.

So maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m in too big a hurry. And maybe I don’t, yet, understand true sentence beauty the way Francine Prose does. I certainly have a lot to learn. That’s why I’m here. But in addition to that, to use a favorite cliché of mine, perhaps it’s true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This cliché basically says the same thing as Prose when she says beauty is difficult to quantify.

I understand that as writers we try to steer clear of clichés and find more creative ways but sometimes (not always but sometimes) clichés work. Isn’t that how they came to be clichés in the first place?

More words packed into a sentence don’t necessarily mean more beauty. Beautiful sentences can also be concise. Sometimes short and long sentences say, more or less, the same thing. And (gasp!) in some cases, at least to me, clichés can be beautiful, too.

Writing Short Stories


Joyce Carol Oates says, “Fairy tales are miniature narratives that typically begin Once upon a time and swiftly, sometimes bluntly summarize entire lives within a few paragraphs.”

Oates also says, “The miniature narrative is often most effective when boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘surreal’ are dissolved.

I’ve never been very good at writing short stories. I think this is mainly because so much needs to be covered in such a short span in a short story that my mind cramps trying to think how I might fit it all into just a few short pages.

It might seem silly but I get nervous thinking about them and tangled up writing them.
But, before now, I’d never thought of fairy tales as miniature narratives. 

Being the mother of a three-year-old girl, I’ve certainly read (and memorized) my fair share of fairy tales. I’ve even composed a few impromptu fairy tales typically at the bedtime request of my very own Princess Lyla (my daughter’s name and her preferred character title). All of which have been met with smiles and gleeful giggles. Of course, she’s not exactly the toughest critic and as long as she lives happily ever after in them, well, then she’s happy (and I am, too).

But using Oates’ thought process, maybe it is simply about dissolving that line between real and surreal. If dissolving the boundaries between real and surreal is what makes fairy tales more effective, then wouldn’t that be true of other types of writing, as well? In a fairy tale, those boundaries dissolve immediately, of course, as we open our minds in a carefree fashion to the magic behind fairies, frogs and princesses. But couldn’t we, as writers, achieve that same effect by working to dissolve that line between real and make believe in non-fairytales, as well?

Isn’t writing fiction about creating something that someone will be willing to believe in whether or not the subject in and of itself is naturally believable? Isn’t our job as writers to make our stories believable? Or perhaps it’s simply (or not-so-simply) to inspire our readers to believe.    

I believe it’s the pressure we put on ourselves that makes one thing seem more or less challenging to accomplish. What is a challenge to one is a piece of cake to another. For example, I’ve never been able to do a cartwheel. Ironically, my brother can. If you asked him, he’d claim he could never write a novel. I think he could if he put his mind to it. He’d say the same about me and that cartwheel. Clearly, we both have our fears.

These pages have inspired me to make a real attempt at a “real” fairy tale. Not just an off-the-cuff version of someone else’s tale with my daughter’s name and favorite past times slotted in but something tangible, written down and that other children might enjoy, as well. Maybe that will be the push that will help me conquer my silly little fear of short stories, too.

I’m still not ready for the cartwheel.

You Oxymoron!

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It was rush hour and I was on my way home from work in my Hyundai Excel sitting in traffic and going nowhere with a terrific headache and a mild case of PMS. I had nothing much planned for the evening and I was desperately in need of a quick fix so I decided to make a fast stop at the convenience store and pick up some non-aspirin, white chocolate, low fat ice cream and a tube of Icy Hot.

It was then when I remembered the bottle of dry wine my sweet mother-in-law gave me for my birthday and figured I might as well pick up something for dinner to complement it.

So I was standing all alone at the seafood counter trying to decide between the jumbo shrimp and the extra large shrimp. Both were on the daily special board though seemed enormously small and a whole lot freezer burnt.  I grabbed a can of genuine imitation crabmeat and turned to peek at the fresh fish and was stuck between the fresh frozen salmon and the catch of the day.  I was absolutely unsure which to choose when I was approached by a customer service associate who told me that there was a sale on boneless ribs in the meat department.  That was awfully nice of him, I thought, and off I went.

That’s when I spotted the biggest baby I’d ever seen! Good grief!  If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say the baby was an old newborn or maybe a young toddler and easily 50 pounds and all head. A head butt from that kid would knock you into next Tuesday! While that’s seriously funny it’s also a true story! And in case you think I’m exaggerating I’m nearly 100% sure that it’s actually a pretty accurate estimate.

While my brain was sadly amused my body was ridiculously horrified. The baby’s mother was enormously small, too. On first impression, I wondered was that even humanly possible? While common sense says no, it seemed like Mother Nature’s idea of a rather unfunny joke to me. Perhaps the most unbelievable part was that the woman was slightly pregnant again. The little tank was undeniably cute and favored his mother. She was awfully pretty and had the glow everyone’s always talking about. But all I kept thinking was ‘is she a glutton for punishment?’ That’s most definitely my initial conclusion since it didn’t seem like an easy labor and, Lord knows, our bodies aren’t exactly one size fits all.

But it’s really neither here nor there because it’s a free world. And what I see as her bad luck proved to be my good luck when I remembered to call in my prescription for birth control. It’ll be safe sex for me from here on out! So I whipped out my cell and used my free minutes to get it done. It may seem like insane logic to some but I’m no dimwit and I’m so not ready for that kind of a fine mess.

Then I realized I was still staring at her with a mean smile on my face. Not wanting to make a negative impact on her day, I had to tell myself to act naturally but I just couldn’t do it. So since I was almost done anyway I skipped the spare ribs, hopped in the self-checkout line and decided to stop for some good fast food–maybe a gourmet burger or chicken fajitas–on my way home instead.