When I turned the last page of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle last week, I felt as though I had come to the end of a long, satisfying dream, one that showed me, mainly through the eyes of dogs and a mute child, a world unlike any I have known yet, at the same time, hauntingly familiar. The dreamlike quality may come in part from the main character’s lack of speech. My own nighttime dreams are mostly silent, filled with images and color and feelings but void of much talking or other sounds.
However, I think the novel’s magic lies mostly in David Wroblewski’s use of clear, simple language and sentence structures, word after word, sentence after sentence, as he resists the temptation to force connections with unnecessary transition words. The following description is from an early chapter of Sawtelle:
“The four of them stand in the weeds behind the barn, gazing upward. A ragged patch of shingles the size of the living room floor hangs from the eaves like the flap of a crusty skin, thick with nails. A third of the roof lies exposed, gray and bare. Before their eyes the barn has become the weathered hull of a ship, upturned.” (p. 53).
I could have chosen any number of passages to share, but this one is as good as any to show what I mean. Notice the simple, clear verbs—stand, hangs, lies—the refreshing paucity of adverbs, the active voice of the first three sentences, the simple subject-predicate cadence, and how the passive voice in the fourth sentence serves a purpose both by echoing the helplessness of the gazers and by reinforcing the poetic rhythm of the prose:
Before their eyes
the barn has become
the weathered hull
of a ship, upturned.
Expand Your Wardrobe Writing Exercise
An exercise that always works well in writing groups I’ve led is to choose a short paragraph like the one above and consciously try to mimic the style or even the structure of the individual sentences of a favorite author, to try on the author’s style for size. For a topic, use a writing prompt or rewrite a portion of your own writing.
Here is how you might create a wardrobe expansion exercise using the Sawtelle paragraph:
Sentence 1:Simple subject (The four of them), simple predicate (stand in the weeds), one or two descriptive phrases (behind the barn, gazing upward).
Sentence 2: More complex subject, simple predicate, simile.
Sentence 3: Simple subject, simple predicate, descriptive phrase.
Sentence 4: Passive voice metaphor.
This exercise is like trying on new clothes. See how the fabric feels, how it fits, how it dovetails (or not) with your own style, where you need to take it in or let it out. Try it with a paragraph from Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, or Henry James. I will share other ideas in future posts.
Students often worry that they are plagiarizing when they do this exercise, but what they are doing is simply practicing skills others have mastered. Of course, you wouldn’t want to publish such as exercise as if you created the structure, but you can get comfortable in it so as to expand your own style. The good things about this kind of wardrobe expansion is that you’ll never run out of room in your closet, and returns are always accepted!
For anyone who is a history or genealogy buff, I thought I’d start sharing some excerpted entries from my great aunt’s diaries, which I have been posting for family members (and any other interested readers) as “Hattie’s Blog“. I hope you enjoy and learn from them as much as I do!
July 8, 1929: A few scattering of clouds, otherwise bright and a real cold day. A fire in the range to wash clothes and cook felt fine. Nellie and Louise washed clothes, and Louise got pleurisy and felt bad in the evening. Heavy clothes didn’t get dry as it wasn’t a very good drying day. Will pulled out weeds away from the trees west of the house and went around stock and got groceries at the store in the evening.
Harriet, Jeanette and Mary sewed and helped me get meals. Mary fixed a pink and white everyday dress and Jeanette a print dress, but we didn’t get sleeves in as we made 2 cakes and set yeast and I kneaded down bread before I went to bed.
~ From the Great Plains Diaries of Harriet E. Whitcher