Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 24 June 2010

How to write a sentence


Red Painting 450 The process of writing is something that fascinates me. I do it every day. I’m doing it right this minute. I wouldn’t say I even think that much about doing it. Mostly the words just flow. I take it for granted. Writing is more than just getting thoughts out of your head onto the paper though. That’s the first bit, usually the easy bit. Fine, get it out of your head so you don’t have to worry about forgetting it. Then read what you’ve written and ask yourself if what you’ve written is what you meant to say. But just what goes through our heads when we write?

I came home yesterday and wrote the following sentence in Word:

I will forever associate reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, with the colour red.

I then had my coffee and a . . . actually I forget what I had with it, probably a chocolate digestive, and then I went back and started to write the following article. The first thing I did was change that opening sentence:

I will forever associate reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, with the colour red; the colour red, so called. I say “so called” because although “red” is the term popularly used to describe the colour I have in mind it is not remotely accurate even though it falls within that section of the spectrum. I suppose there must be a single spectral wavelength that can be designated as “red”, perhaps the colour of fire engines or pillar-boxes, but the red I have in mind is a more natural red although not red like poppies.

Wavelength ~630–740 nm, Frequency ~480–405 THz 

The red I have in mind is redheadedness although I have never seen anyone with truly red hair that didn’t come out of a bottle. No, the redhead I have in mind had ginger hair. Even that is imprecise because ginger hair varies from a deep orange-red through burnt orange to bright copper; it can be russet, auburn, copper or even rust-coloured.

clip_image001[4] Chestnut
clip_image002[4] Dark Auburn
clip_image003[4] Light Auburn
clip_image004[4] Dark Auburn
clip_image005[4] Medium Auburn
clip_image006[4] Flame Red
clip_image007[4] Coppery Red
clip_image008[4] Golden Toasted Auburn
clip_image009[4] Copper Red
clip_image010[4] Irish Red
clip_image011[4] Medium Irish Red

I was reading my book whilst on a bus in the centre of Glasgow. The incidence of redheads, so called, is considerably higher in Scotland than in any other part of the world; about one in every eight Scots will be some shade of redhead. There’s a woman on the TV right now reading the news and she’s a redhead. I’m a redhead although I’m nowhere near as redheaded now as I was when I was a little boy. Indeed what little hair I have left on my head ranges from the darkest of browns to silver. Perhaps this is why I like my beard which is still more red than grey. While I was reading my book a redhead got on the bus and sat down in front of me. She had long hair, three or four inches below her shoulders, and, as she sat down, she tossed it behind her – presumably so she didn’t sit on it – and, in doing so, threw it over one of my hands, a not entirely unpleasant experience although one that immediately brought about a pang of guilt for enjoying the sensation more than I thought I ought and for not immediately rearranging myself so that my hands were out of her reach.

After a bit she turned and glanced behind her although not directly at me and really not looking for or at anyone. As she did so her hair slid off my hand and hung tantalisingly in front of me. She had the kind of pale skin that tends to go redhead with being a redhead, no freckles to speak of although she did sport a small pin in her nose; the pin had a blue stone in it which did not match her colouration. She was pretty but not beautiful and perhaps eighteen years old.

Her hair more than made up for any other ways Nature or poor fashion sense might have let her down. I stopped reading, stared at her hair and for a few seconds I was speechless. Actually throughout the entire experience I was speechless and so really what I should have said was that I was thoughtless only that’s not the right word because that suggests I was careless which I was not. What I mean to say is that nothing coherent went on in my head for several seconds. No words, no memories, nothing but the image of this hair which was only interrupted by the girl turning her head to look down the aisle; that broke my concentration because then I started to think about who she looked like.

So, if I’m being honest, I should associate “red” with stopping reading Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, however, I have no doubt that whenever I pick up the book from now on I will be confronted with the colour red or at least what I have decided to call “the colour red” despite the fact the expression clearly is woefully inaccurate.

She sat in front of me for perhaps ten minutes. Ten minutes out of her life and a corresponding ten minutes out of my own, ten minutes during which she stared out of the window and during which I tried to read and not stare at her hair. I have no idea how many pages I tried to read whilst not looking at her hair – eight perhaps, let’s say eight – nor do I have any idea which eight pages these were. I know when I alighted myself some twenty minutes after her I placed my bookmark in between pages 48 and 49 but everything else would be guesswork.

I don’t remember what I was trying to read while the redhead was on the bus with me. I think it was something about the narrator’s preoccupations with certain girls at school and certain female cousins but that might have been before or even after the girl was on the bus.

The girl got off the bus at Anniesland and walked away from the bus stop down Glencoe Street. I didn’t know the name of the street. I looked up the name on a map. I watched her as she walked away getting smaller and smaller. She looked younger from a distance, perhaps fourteen, although to be fair most fourteen-year-olds could pass for eighteen these days, and her hair was noticeably less stunning. I felt bereft.

Amber Sparks Now I can barely remember her face at all. I’ve decided that she looked a bit like a girl called Amber Sparks. I saw a photograph of this girl, a poet who lives in Washington, D.C., and I think the girl on the bus looked something like her. She probably doesn’t but when my mind searched for images to connect with this particular experience that was the one that came to mind. The photograph of Amber Sparks was a black and white one and so I have no idea if she had red hair when it was taken. I found the photograph again and now I really can’t remember what the girl on the bus looked like. It’s completely gone. Why do I remember Amber Sparks anyway? The name for one. It’s a lovely name – memorable. But she reminded me of someone I was friends with for several years who wasn’t a redhead. Do you ever do that, meet someone who looks like someone you’ve known from the past and immediately take a liking or a disliking to this new person solely because of how you felt about who they remind you of? Now I find a fondness creeping into my recollection of the girl on the bus. I’ve decided she must be a nice person. She probably is. Most people are.

In the book I was trying to read the narrator talks about how he assembled the looks he ascribed to certain characters in books he read as a child sometimes ignoring the descriptions as written and imposing his own, specifically one called ‘Aunt Bee’ to whom he assigned the face of an old nun he once was taught by, so it seems appropriate that my image of the girl on the bus should be part-fiction. She was real. My memory of her is not. Memories don’t exist in isolated little pockets in our brains. Likewise her hair. The term ‘redhead’ doesn’t cut it and ‘ginger’ is appalling – it has such negative connotations. I looked up ‘amber’ in Google and found this picture. Now that is the kind of colour I was thinking about. It is a piece of Lithuanian amber from the Baltic LithuaniaAmber coast. Amber is, of course, not a colour; there are lots of colours in this lump and the same goes for hair, especially in sunlight.

It’s hard to say what will or won’t happen in the future. I have no reason to remember the girl on the bus, no explicit plans for her. I expect I will remember her for some time especially now I’ve decided to write about her but whether I remember her or not will ultimately have less to do with what I want than what I am capable of. I don’t have a good memory. Perhaps that is why I relished this experience at the time realising that it would soon be lost to me. Because I have become used to not being able to return my memories with ease. I have no doubt that the memory will remain and every time I read this it will jog a semblance of that memory. I may remember. There is no guarantee I will.

It’s also inaccurate to say that I will remember this forever. I don’t expect to live forever. I could say that I may remember this for as long as I live but I suspect that even that is being overly optimistic.

I never thought about what the girl was doing on the bus, where she had been or where she was going. Amos Oz would have. He would have constructed a whole life around her. I don’t do that so much but, if I did, what would my redhead be like?

People with red hair are assumed to have bold personalities and short tempers, and they are frequently thought to be adventurous, unafraid, and mischievous. While these characteristics are pure assumptions, they lend mystery and desirability to red hair. –

gillian-maxim It’s not true you know. When you think of red hair who jumps to mind? Gillian Anderson, perhaps? Or what about Julianne Moore or Geri Halliwell (that would be ‘Ginger’ Spice) or, if you’re of a certain age, perhaps Lucille Ball? All feisty women. Surprisingly I can only think of one redhead from when I was at school, a boy, ‘Big Nell’ – so much for 13% of the population having red hair, eh? Of course, by “red” they’re counting everything from honey blonde upwards.

I expect the girl on the bus was going home because she got off the bus in a residential area. I don’t need to know. I will probably never see her again. I do pass her bus stop occasionally and perhaps the next time I pass her stop, or the stop on the other side of the road, I’ll think about her but most likely not. I could write her into a story, her hair anyway, or a poem. I could give her hair to a girl – it need not even be the main character – just a girl on a bus, feisty or not. Her hair would look good in anyone’s story.

What I think I should have written is:

For some time to come whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I imagine that will call to mind hair the colour of Lithuanian amber.

It’s a bit cumbersome but more accurate. The real question is: how precise does one need to be? I personally think one can overthink a sentence. Did the girl have hair the colour of Lithuanian amber or have I overwritten the image in my head? It would be nice if she had. Even if you never had a picture to look at just the sound is lovely. I had a look online at some of the similes people have used to describe hair, not just redheads, and there are a few beauties:

hair the colour of...

  • moonlight
  • soup milky tea
  • strawberry jam
  • spun gold
  • hatred (good one)
  • Heinz Tomato Soup (I kid you not)
  • sun-bleached straw
  • a ripe wheat field
  • Hayley William's in the decode video (typos not mine)
  • hay in a prairie dawn just as the sun hits the first stalks
  • the yellow flag iris which grows by summer water

Perhaps I could say that the girl on the bus had hair the colour of amber sparks. Or am I trying too hard to meld these two ideas together in my head? That would okay actually because amber is just a lump of fossilised tree resin whereas this girl’s hair was alive. If I write “amber sparks” I’m suggesting movement, not of her hair, which swished very nicely thank you very much, but the way the light reflected and picked out different shades. It didn’t so much sparkle as shimmer. (Christ! What did people ever do before thesauri?)

Main Entry: shim·mer

Pronunciation: \ˈshi-mər\

Function: verb

Inflected Form(s): shim·mered; shim·mer·ing \ˈshi-mə-riŋ, ˈshim-riŋ\

Etymology: Middle English schimeren, from Old English scimerian; akin to Old English scīnan to shine — more at shine

Date: before 12th century

intransitive verb 1 : to shine with a soft tremulous or fitful light : glimmer
2 : to reflect a wavering sometimes distorted visual image transitive verb : to cause to shimmer

It’s not quite right, is it? What about ‘glimmer’?

Main Entry: glim·mer

Pronunciation: \ˈgli-mər\

Function: intransitive verb

Inflected Form(s): glim·mered; glim·mer·ing \ˈglim-riŋ, ˈgli-mə-\

Etymology: Middle English glimeren; akin to Old English glǣm gleam

Date: 15th century

1 a : to shine faintly or unsteadily b : to give off a subdued unsteady reflection
2 : to appear indistinctly with a faintly luminous quality

Better. But this is becoming hard work. No one other than me will ever know the exact colour I have in my mind so why bend myself out of shape trying to find the perfect expression when no such expression exists? Maybe all I need is:

From now on, whenever I pick up or think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch, I’ll think of a girl with red hair on a bus.

I might also change it around and say:

In the future when I notice someone with red hair I expect to think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch.

I imagine that will be so for a time because it needn’t be hair precisely the same shade as the girl on the bus. It doesn’t even need to belong to a girl. It’s not saying the same thing as the very first sentence I wrote but it’s safer. It makes more sense. There are loads of people with red hair that I’m likely to see but how many copies of Barley Patch are there in the UK? Not many I suspect. So I think I’ll go with that. My readers will be more able to relate to that despite its inaccuracy. Forget Amber Sparks, Lithuanian amber and ludicrous similes. Forget trying to be precise. There’s ‘precise’ and there’s ‘precise enough’ and, as my good wife is very fond of saying, that’s “close enough for government work.”

So, what’s that, about three and a half hours to get one sentence right? Assuming I stick with it. Which is unlikely. I don’t really like ‘notice’.

Yes, writing’s easy ain’t it? You just sit down and write. Right. Of course you do.


Elisabeth said...

I like your first sentence best, Jim. If I were you, I'd stick with it.

As I read this post I thought I was reading Gerald Murnane, the same attention to detail.

GM has a way of affecting me this way. The first time I read his writing I was so captivated by his voice and style that I found myself writing him a letter in which I tried to emulate him.

My letter begins: 'I promise I will try to write perfect sentences to the man who also writes perfect sentences. I have come to his writing late in my life. I have come to his writing at a time in my life when I have entered a different academic institution called Latrobe University, an institution that rests on the same grasslands on which the Mont Park Mental Hospital once rested when the man who writes perfect sentences was a boy.
The man who writes perfect sentences proceeds from one sentence to the next, slowly, carefully, moving on only when he has perfected each sentence in turn. I will try to write perfect sentences by following the contours of my mind, from one idea to the next, from one image to the next but I will not look back on what I have written until I have finished writing all the sentences, one after the other. Then I will look back on the sentences to tidy them. I will look back on the sentences to try to perfect them for the man who writes perfect sentences and finally I will send them on to him in the form of a letter.'

It was a long letter and I cringe now when I read it. GM wrote back and we've since been correspondents.

I've also stopped trying to write like him. GM wrote some time after this first letter that he had thought when he read it that I was a 'nutter'. I can see why.

GM believes in perfect sentences. I do not. I prefer sentences however imperfect that sing to me. They may not work for others. It's all in finding a voice and sticking with it. I don't intend to try to emulate GM ever again, but I love to read his writing.

By the way, we have just had a new Prime Minister installed in Australia - you may have heard, our first ever woman PM. Her name is Julia Gillard and her hair is red.

Jim Murdoch said...

I knew you would connect with this, Lis. I wrote this four months ago. I don’t think I had seen the film at that time but there is a scene in the film where Murnane revises a sentence on camera nudging it towards perfection. My question is: Is perfection necessary? I used to think it was but I’m not so sure any more. My reason is that a sentence is incomplete without a reader and I simply can’t predict what my reader will bring to the table. And so I do my best but that’s all any of us can do, even Gerald Murnane.

As for you being a nutter, that sounds like the perfect description of you right enough.

Kass said...

From the man who writes reviews, a scintillating review of how your mind works! A great read. Lis's comment was also pretty fun to read.

If I ever wrote a perfect sentence, I would probably have to die.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

As an extension of what Kass says, this is the first time I've been sentenced to death and enjoyed it, period.

Marion McCready said...

Really enjoyed this post, Jim.

Art Durkee said...

Speaking as one who comes from an entire family of (often loudmouthed) redheads (that's our family's Irish side), and as a recovering perfectionist (my family's Norwegian Lutheran side), I generally prefer imperfections and sentence fragments that pack a punch. It's all about what works, for any given piece of writing. And since I don't write fiction, poetry gives me the excuse to abandon the prose rules of grammar as needed.

Tahlia said...

I agree with Elisabeth, and it reminds me of times when I've spent ages working on a sentence only to realise that the one I had first was the best. Was it a waste of time? No, because at least I'm sure after that.

Since you're a writer you might like to take a look at my blog about the journey to publication of my new YA fantasy novel, 'Lethal Inheritance’.

You can read ch1 of it at
On the home page there are postings about writing, challenges of the writer's life and getting publishing.

You might enjoy it as I enjoy yours.

Jim Murdoch said...

I suppose that depends on how you define ‘work’, Kass. It doesn’t feel like work. It feels like wandering around in the dark most of the time and then suddenly realising I got where I was aiming for with no idea how.

Vazambam, always love a good pun. I must do a post on puns one of these days.

Marion, thank you kindly.

I’m pretty much with Larkin when it comes to poetry, Art. I think in sentences and so that’s how I write. And I punctuate accordingly. There’s been the odd experiment but that’s exactly what they were and I’ve never been that happy with them. I have to say I never think about any of my characteristics in terms of national heritage. There are qualities I inherited from my parents but I don’t think of them as English qualities but then there are sides to me that appear Scottish that I think are just me.

And, Tahlia, I’ve written before about the first sentence to my first novel and how much time I spent on it only to discover – literally years later – that it ended up exactly the same as when I first typed it. There’s a middle ground here and I think you learn with time which sentences are just right. My biggest problem is that I’m prone to writing very convoluted sentences which work when spoken but make the readers’ lives difficult on the page.

I had a wee look at your site. Glad to see you’ve managed to land an agent. That’s almost as hard as landing a publisher. I don’t have much knowledge of the YA market and I’ve only recently reviewed my first YA novel. Hard to tell what will pique their interest especially since YA is such a vague term but you never know, you might be lucky.

Rachel Fenton said...

"I stopped reading, stared at her hair and for a few seconds I was speechless. Actually throughout the entire experience I was speechless and so really what I should have said was that I was thoughtless only that’s not the right word because that suggests I was careless which I was not. What I mean to say is that nothing coherent went on in my head for several seconds."

This bit made me smile wide because it brilliantly demonstrates the chain of significateion: the way the more you try to describe a thing accurately, the farther away from the thing you started with you get. Like trying to tie knots in hair.

The thing with the red, though, is it was only that red by virtue of what other colours were framing it! It's all relative.

Jim Murdoch said...

Precisely, Rachel! Whoever said this writing malarkey was easy has clearly not thought about it. Words constantly disappoint me. But that’s not right either because what have the words done bar be themselves? It’s my limited ability that disappoints me. Really the solution to the problem here is not to try and pack everything into the one sentence. Lis is right, the very first sentence is the best one. It just needs another sentence or two after it. The first points the reader in the general direction, and the subsequent sentences fine-tune.

Art Durkee said...

Speaking of writing poetry in sentences, I think there are ways to do it that are interesting, and break the line, enjamb in lively ways, and also musical ways. Larkin isn't what I'd call musical, but in fact he does have his own kind of poetic music. (I have his book of reviews and essays; I think he totally missed the boat on jazz post-bebop, but whatever.)

Then are other poets who use full sentences where it is really IS like prose broken into ordinary lines. Bland, ordinary prose, at times. It's hard to call some of these examples poetry rather than prose.

I know it's heresy, and I have to put Mary Oliver's poetry into that second camp. I've heard lots of praise for her poems, and people have tried to get me to like them. I finally picked up her Selected and New Poems, and except for some of the earliest poems in the collection, it's all very . . . bland. It's funny when I see other poets praise her for her consistency; when what is consistent is the utter lack of music. Oh well.

Tim Love said...

Fascinating. Someone (I think it was Freddy Raphael) dismantled at length a few of Ian McEwan's sentences in an article (maybe in London Magazine). When I worry like this about my sentences I suspect I'm finding an excuse not to write.

I've not read Gerald Murnane so I'm probably missing the point, but to me "In the future when I notice someone with red hair I expect to think about Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch" has too many words. If you want a term that means "someone (not necessarily female) with red hair" why not use "redhead"? And "In the future" is nearly redundant. So you might get way with "Seeing a redhead will always bring to mind ..." or if you want to indicate a 2-way association, "Redheads and Gerald Murnane’s book, Barley Patch will always be together in my mind"

At first you're keen to capture the experience accurately, then precisely, then later the reader response becomes a factor. Perhaps the reader should enter earlier in the negotiations. What effect will the sentence have on the reader? They won't know or care what really happened. Perhaps they'll focus more on the voice/diction and try to characterize the persona - fussy about words, bookish? - which is perhaps the effect you wish to create.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t know Mary Oliver, Art, but I’ve had a look at a few of her poems just now. They don’t do much for me. I see she write prose poems too – a form I’ve never been able to get to grips with – so maybe she’s just one of those writers who takes a looser view on what can constitute a poem. She’s written two books about poetics so she must be knowledgeable. We all aim to find our own natural mode of expression. I guess she’s found hers.

Larkin’s poetry has a specific tone which, of course, is a musical expression. His forte is not melody but harmony. It’s not until you read a few of his poems in a row that you notice it. Mind you “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” has a bit of a beat to it.

Thanks for the comment, Litrefs. All valid points. The Murnane reference isn’t really so important here. He is a perfectionist and writes like no other writer I know of. But it was just coincidence that I happened to be reading Barley Patch on the bus; it could’ve been any book. It just seemed a fun way to explore the creative process.

I love and loathe the whole Jane Austin school of perfect dialogue. It’s so artificial. People don’t have time to consider exactly what they’re going to say. They jump in and get as close to the point as they can. I like to read a book that sounds like some guy is telling me a story, where his language is natural and not sharpened to make points in the least number of words. That a sentence needs qualification is fine.

Think about a book as one long sentence. It takes its time getting to the point. It dribbles out information, it misdirects, it digresses. The pleasure is in the journey, in providing the readers some scope to consider other possibilities before tying them down with ‘this is how it is.’

PhilipH said...

This story of a girl with long red hair is engrossing.

Such a simple premise but it was also complex when trying to get to your thoughts, so to speak.

It would be so good if you ever DO encounter her again, especially on a bus!

I enjoyed the creativity and the way you presented this post.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Philip. I actually avoided all of this description malarkey in my last novella by writing it completely in dialogue. My writing’s been pushing me in that direction for years and I finally gave in. A good chunk of the novel before that was in chat, again obviating the need for any descriptive passages for pages at a time.

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