Stepping off into a void may seem like a better way to die than a heart attack at your desk, that is until you’re faced with such a prospect. That’s when you realize all forms of death are equal in the end.
So as terrifying as it must be to getting lost in a whiteout, few other things compare to being confronted with a blank page and not knowing which way to go. The experienced hiker knows he or she could take a wrong step or simply run out of supplies, just as an experienced writer knows that a lame first sentence will cause a reader to choose to read something else and starve his or her work of attention. Which was why I enjoyed listening to Stanley Fish on NPR talk about opening sentences as well as his latest book, How To Write A Sentence: And How To Read One.
Fish, who’s entertaining to listen to as well as to read even if you don’t like him personally, points out that most people are taught to write by learning rules instead of examples. He also goes on to say that just as professional musicians practice scales, not just complete pieces of music, writers should practice hours of writing about nothing. Yes, nothing. Just focus on form. Fish recommends writers create sentences about nothing but to construct them in logical way. In How To Write A Sentence, Fish cites an example from Noam Chomsky.
1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
2) Furiously sleep ideas green colorless
The first, Fish goes on to say, is “an example of a verbal unit that is perfectly grammatical but semantically nonsensical. It is grammatical because the doer (ideas), and the doing (sleep), along with the manner of the doing (furiously), are in the appropriate structural slots.” The second example from Chomsky is just a list that Fish says “exhibits no logical relationships whatsoever…” (Although, as an aside, Noam Chomsky is a master of making points that have no logical relationship to reality.)
Fish explains that literary devices are not ends to themselves, but having command of them will help you communicate what you want to say in a way that satisfies your reader. A chef must possess more than knowledge of ingredients, seasonings and cooking techniques to create a sophisticated meal, but without them he or she is helpless in the kitchen.
You can listen to Stanley Fish’s interview on NPR’s Talk of The Nation here.