Strunk and White…Meet Klinkenborg
by Donna McLaughlin Schwender
(If you’re short on time, the condensed version of this post (inspired by Verlyn Klinkenborg) is this: If you’re a writer or know someone who is…Buy. This. Book.)
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As I mentioned in my last post, “focus” is the word I’ve chosen to incorporate into my life this year. So far, a substantial part of that focus has been aimed inwards on my writing. It’s been a process that’s involved a lot of reading about writing.
Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “Several Short Sentences About Writing” was just one book among several that I ordered a few weeks ago. Although the title didn’t impress me (nor the cover, as shown above), the book itself ended up being 204 pages of what I believe could become a classic – much like Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” and Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”
However, because on the unusual way it’s written – poetically short sentences and a lack of “true” paragraphs – it’s a book people will probably either love or hate. Anyone who’s considering buying it should spend a few minutes reading the available pages for preview on Amazon to decide if it’s something they’d enjoy.
While discussing this book with three of my closest writing friends, I mentioned how the straightforward yet revolutionary ideas Klinkenborg presented completely challenged the way I was taught to write (as I think many people were) and gave me reason to pause, over and over again. It was Paul Gilmore’s Amazon review that actually summarized my thoughts best though. In it, he wrote, “I have a tendency to write in the manner of positively passionate purple prose that is overtly pulchritudinous in written and verbal construct and delivery. This book helped to save my life from choking on my own words.” While I’ve managed to edit several hundred words from this post (I realize how difficult that might be to believe), it’s obvious that I’m still slightly allergic to the use of short sentences.
This book isn’t just about brevity though. Klinkenborg poetically discusses what he considers to be the harmful writing methods we were taught in school – arguing, demonstrating, drafting, outlining, persuading, reciting, reiterating, transitioning – and how such a focus leads us to get hung up on the concepts of authority, chronology, discipline, flow, genre, inspiration, logic, order, proof, sincerity, style, voice, and the dreaded writer’s block. Instead, he encourages writers to imagine, listen, name, notice, testify, and think and to focus on the importance of clarity, directness, implication, literalness, patience, presence, revision, rhythm, silence, simplicity, space, and variation.
He also eloquently addresses the all-important relationship between the writer and the reader, as well as various writer’s fears including (but not limited to): has “it” been said before; what if I don’t immediately write down every good sentence I create; if I am my story, where do I get another one; and how much do I have to explain to the reader. As if that wasn’t enough, the last 54 pages are filled with sample sentences and passages to practice reviewing and revising, along with more of Klinkenborg’s helpful insight.
While that might be the succinct synopsis, it doesn’t do justice to what Klinkenborg manages to accomplish in this book. Below are just a few examples (with the writing style kept intact) of what awaits you between the covers. I truly hope they entice you to find a spot on your bookshelf for this inspiring work of written art.
“You’re holding an audition.
Many sentences will try out.
One gets the part.
You’ll recognize it less from the character of the
than from the promise it contains – promise for the
sentences to come.”
“Every word is optional until it proves to be essential…
Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise.”
“Every piece is an ecosystem of words and structures
Suddenly you’re looking at [your sentences’] bones and muscles,
the way they’re joined and the kinetics of their
“Late in the paragraph you prepare for the transition to
the next paragraph –
The great leap over the void, across that yawning
You were taught the art of the flying trapeze,
But not how to write.”
“The writer’s world is full of parallel universes.
You discover, word by word, the one you discover.
Ten minutes later – another hour of thought – and you
would have found your way into a different universe.
The piece is permeable to the world around it.
It’s responsive to time itself, to the very hour of its creation.
This is an immensely freeing thing to understand.”
“…remember that your sentences don’t
acquire their final inertia
Until you release them”
“Don’t preconceive the reader’s limitations.
They’ll become your own.”
“And what happens if you trust the reader?
All the devices of distrust fall away,
The pretense of logic, the obsession with transition,
The creeping, incremental movement of sentences,
Sentences stepping on each other’s heels…
You converse, in a sense, with the voice on the other
side of the ink.”
“You be the narrator.
Let us be the readers.
You’ll discover that being the narrator is not the same as being yourself.
It’s a role, and a dramatic one.
Absorb it and inhabit it.”