Two really, really, really long sentences

In Writing on April 13, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Sometimes in writing it’s important to challenge yourself to stretch your abilities, even if what you come up with, at the end of the exercise, is a horrible, steaming pile of mangled syntax and mixed up metaphors. Nobody actually needs to be able to bench press 700 pounds (except for those women who save their children from, you know, crashing spaceships and such with incredible feats of superhuman strength) but athletes still do it because it helps them condition themselves in general.

That’s where today’s exercise comes in: writing really, really, absurdly long sentences.

Your goal: to write a sentence that is at least 250 words long. The point: well, hopefully the point will be clear after I share a couple examples.

Sentence 1 (269 words)

Like an innocuous old woman at her knitting, the watchman was of that convenient disposition which lends itself to the impression — in the all-too-casual observer, anyway — of feebleness and apathy  such that, in the course of their thoughtless comings and goings, the clientele of the hotel  often discussed matters which would have remained hidden in the presence of any other stranger:  Mr. Brant and the affair with the widow’s daughter; Charles Grundheim and his hopeless gambling debt; Constable Winters’ none-too-candid views on criminology and  his fervent belief that men of certain countries should be expected to commit certain evils (Englishmen, by the way, being most inclined to lechery);  matters which, in short,  caught the watchmen’s ear more readily than less…valuable…topics might have, and which were actually of the most urgent pertinence to him, for (though the lodgers were naturally unaware of the fact)  he had been collecting their sordid tidbits for some time, storing them in his memory like mosquitoes in amber, with all the smallest details perfectly preserved, and making of them – rather than a simple catalog of separate misdeeds — a tapestry of interwoven evils which would soon be applied toward one common end:  the watchman’s liberation and, at the same time, the downfall and utter ruin of the whole ravenous bunch – an end of which he was so completely assured that the pattern and dependability of their misbehavior actually comforted the watchman like a sort of shawl, being drawn in more tightly and gathering in thick layers so as to better warm one who has waited too long in the cold.

Still with me? Good. Just one more example, then.

Sentence 2 (262 words)

They would say he had been foolish – he imagined classes of graduate students delineating his final days the way history students might analyze Napoleon’s combat strategies: foolishly, imperiously, incompletely – when the truth of it was that nobody on the outside could have been in his situation and come dispassionately to a solution as eloquent as the one he had found, one which, though it would lead in steady gradations to his death in the space of seventy-two hours, nonetheless gave him immeasurable joy and an overwhelming sense of personal pride (he had, after all, devised and arranged the whole thing himself):  the caterer for the party had been cancelled (what need for cake, pasta  salads and dry chicken when the guests would never arrive?); all points of ventilation to the office had been sealed, save for one small conduit in the third floor conference room (the grounds on which his caper would be staged);  and the carefully-landed East-Asia development contract had, in the past two weeks, been systematically and just as carefully driven into the ground – a feat for which Gary knew he didn’t deserve all the credit, but, then again, it had been his idea to let the interns throw together those farcical proposals (part of an exercise he had called “how to sell what they don’t want”), a number of which were obscenely racist and a number of which conveniently made their way into the actual proposal – so, in all conceivable ways the stage had been set and the actors put into place, all that remained was to yell “action.”

So, like I said: steaming piles. But the point of the exercise isn’t to come up with something you can sell to The Atlantic, it’s to stretch your abilities — your understanding of structure, of syntax, of units of thought — so that when you write normal sentences they’re just that much sharper, crisper and clearer.

Now you give it a try (post the results here if you dare), and if you’re up for an extra challenge try writing one that doesn’t make your narrator sound like a total sociopath!

  1. This exercise may be particularly delicious to fans of post-postmodernism because it can result (if the writer is very lucky) in writing that sounds a bit like my favorite author: the masterful and delightful David Foster Wallace (may he rest in peace), who is otherwise affectionately known as DFW–which is interesting because that is also the initialism for the metroplex in which I grew up: the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex; and is additionally interesting because of Mr. Wallace’s own fondness for initialisms, acronyms, and nicknames–and who wrote absurdly long sentences, footnotes, and unrelated diatribes in an effort, I think, to convey his characters’ (and his own) borderline mental instability and also his disregard for linear thinking and straightforward storytelling, which is, to say the least, very extreme but also very realistic in its reflection of conversations that are of an at-least-slightly-amusing caliber and I don’t think I am incorrect when I dare to conjecture that if a fan of David Foster Wallace were to examine her most inane and interesting conversations with a person she knew even slightly intimately–is it possible to know someone slightly intimately? or would that be ‘Before Sunset’-style pseudo-intimacy?–she would realize that quite of bit of DFW’s classic, bouncy, non sequitur-ridden dialogue-style shows up in her own communications, even if the conversation-partner has never been directly influenced by Mr. Wallace’s unique brand of literature, despite your best efforts because he really is the king of breaking the rules in a way that yours truly cannot begin to emulate in this exercise, try as she might (and fail).

    264 words.

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