A LECTURE DELIVERED BY THE SHORT-STORY WRITER GARY LUTZ TO THE STUDENTS OF COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY’S WRITING PROGRAM IN NEW YORK
April 17, 2009 2:27 PM   Subscribe

The sentence is a lonely place. "The sentence, with its narrow typographical confines, is a lonely place, the loneliest place for a writer, and the temptation for the writer to get out of one sentence as soon as possible and get going on the next sentence is entirely understandable. In fact, the conditions in just about any sentence soon enough become (shall we admit it?) claustrophobic, inhospitable, even hellish. But too often our habitual and hasty breaking away from one sentence to another results in sentences that remain undeveloped parcels of literary real estate, sentences that do not feel fully inhabitated and settled in by language. So many of the sentences we confront in books and magazines look unfinished and provisional, and start to go to pieces as soon as we gawk at and stare into them. They don’t hold up. Their diction is often not just spare and stark but bare and miserly."
posted by plexi (41 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sentences are just limericks that don't rhyme.
posted by jeremy b at 2:28 PM on April 17, 2009


what
posted by ardgedee at 2:33 PM on April 17, 2009


Oh, man, I love Gary Lutz. His short fiction is incredibly idiosyncratic but astonishing. Thanks for this.
posted by dersins at 2:35 PM on April 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


this is, like, totally made up
posted by Ironmouth at 2:39 PM on April 17, 2009


The thing just read like...I don't know what. It was just fun to read, not only for the content, but for the rolling topography of his sentences.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:46 PM on April 17, 2009


Inhabitated? That's apparently an acceptable variant form, but yuck.
posted by Malor at 2:51 PM on April 17, 2009


CAPSLOCK HAS A POSSE
posted by sidereal at 3:02 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
posted by sidereal at 3:03 PM on April 17, 2009


I NEVER MET A SENTENCE I DIDN'T
posted by blue_beetle at 3:10 PM on April 17, 2009


The road to hell is paved with adverbs.

FInd Stepen King's crusades against adverbs, if you can. Just drive him up the wall. Even when he's writing about an author he adores (and I'm particularly remembering his EW reviews of the Harry Potter books) he'll still harangue them for their use of adverbs.

Me, I think they can be used well or ill, like anything else in language, but I still have a deal of sympathy for the belief that there's a perfect verb and/or adjective for any situation.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:17 PM on April 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


Great stuff, thanks plexi.
posted by rokusan at 3:23 PM on April 17, 2009


After traveling along the road of adverbs for a little while, you finally get to poetics hell...

When you enter the first level of poetics hell, there's just a copy of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare sitting in the middle of a giant black room. The sonnets are marked with Post It notes.

Between levels two through four, there's lots of discussion on why certain joke structures are funny: puns, farce, the rule of threes... It is by far, the most interminably dull.

When I was in level five, there was a writing workshop where some jackass tells you how to turn your writing into his. Looking back, I realize that I was that jackass.

Level six catches a lot of people by surprise. This is the one where there's some metaphysical slideshow of canonical works of art in your brain and Susan Sontag is repeating the same thirty words over and over again. Nobody's ever figured it out. But by the time you leave, you'll believe there's some important meaning to it all that you can't quite grasp.

Two thrones hover above you on level seven. Strunk and White are sitting on them and throw eggs at you every time you try to take a nap.

On the eighth level is a ten word sentence diagrammed across the entirety of Satan's tongue (it's really long).

This article is what awaits you in the ninth level of poetics hell.

On level ten, you have to sacrifice your punctuation to make Bowser fall in the pit of lava.

Then you're back on the road of adverbs, heading right back in again.
posted by pokermonk at 3:31 PM on April 17, 2009 [14 favorites]


This is all interesting to me, but I could care less about how words sound, when I'm reading something; I care about what they mean.
posted by empath at 3:57 PM on April 17, 2009


Gary Lutz is the best! dersins, weren't you responsible for a Lutz/Hempel post a while back?

Marvelous essay. I do feel sorry for writing professors across America, though, who will soon be receiving stories full of sentences like, "The path past the chickens was paved with pure cluck."
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 3:58 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


The writers of such sentences became the writers I read and reread. I favored books that you could open to any page and find in every paragraph sentences that had been worked and reworked until their forms and contours and their organizations of sound had about them an air of having been foreordained—as if this combination of words could not be improved upon and had finished readying itself for infinity.

Funny to read someone earnestly praising an essentially classical aesthetic of the sentence (nothing can be added or taken away without spoiling it's perfect form) who writes in such weird, lumpy, "Hey, I just discovered this language, is this how you use it?" sentences himself. Not that I'm criticizing either his prose style or the aesthetic ideal, but they seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

Indeed, when he gets to specific recommendations later, its much more "load every rift with ore" than "readying itself for infinity." He wants sentences packed with stresses, full of striking neologisms etc. Well, that's certainly what he produces--but I don't know that many people would say of such coinings as "forlornities" that they seem "foreordained."
posted by yoink at 4:01 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Holy shit: a fucking Gary Lutz post. He is a great writer and seriously the nicest guy on the planet. Thank you for this.

Seriously, folks, run out and grab Stories in the Worst Way and I Looked Alive today.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 4:01 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


Word.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:06 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


dersins, weren't you responsible for a Lutz/Hempel post a while back?

Indeed. The, uh, conversation didn't really go well, for which I am partially at fault.

(On re-reading that thread I almost want to slap nasreddin for dismissing Amy Hempel as "chick lit." It's so wrongheaded it would be laughable if it weren't also belittling and borderline misogynist. )
posted by dersins at 4:26 PM on April 17, 2009


I remember that! If you google "amy hempel chick lit" that thread is the third result. Oh man, it probably says something about me that that is the maddest I have ever gotten on the internet.

Anyway, more on topic, The Believer loves Lutz. They published an interview with him in 2006--sadly unavailable without a subscription--and Sven Birkerts offered up an analysis of his work in 2003. Also, here's a thoughtful post from someone who attended this lecture.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 5:06 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I could care less about how words sound, when I'm reading something; I care about what they mean

I see what you did there. On purpose, right? Please?
posted by sidereal at 5:08 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


You know, you put that title in all caps, and I thought this was an interview of Dave Secretary. Strike one, plexi, strike one.
posted by eurasian at 5:19 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


I could care less about how words sound, when I'm reading something; I care about what they mean

I see what you did there. On purpose, right? Please?Now I'm going to wave my grammar-dick at you.


FTFY.

You wanna wave your grammar-dick, fine, but the Internet is the big leagues, so don't blame me when synchrony smacks it with the non-compositional semantics of idioms and diachrony tag-teams with the fossilization of sarcasm for the knock-out.
posted by eritain at 6:28 PM on April 17, 2009


Hi, my name's eritain and I'm a compulsive scorner.
posted by eritain at 6:32 PM on April 17, 2009


NP + VP
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:46 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is all interesting to me, but I could care less about how words sound, when I'm reading something; I care about what they mean.

Then you're not reading everything they mean.
posted by Casuistry at 7:01 PM on April 17, 2009


Not. Really.
posted by cogneuro at 7:24 PM on April 17, 2009


My all-time favourite writing is found in the opening paragraphs of some of Pat Conroy's books. They lusciously envelope me in the mood and environment of the setting.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:02 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


All this talk of waving one's grammar-dick gives me an opening to use one of my favorite words:

Grammaticasters!

I learned that from languagehat.
posted by umbú at 8:04 PM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


This sentence no verb.
posted by neuron at 9:53 PM on April 17, 2009


This is what's known as overthinking a single bean.
posted by delmoi at 10:13 PM on April 17, 2009


Jesus wept.
posted by Kinbote at 11:24 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I feel as if we've now all been sentenced.
posted by jamstigator at 7:03 AM on April 18, 2009


I started out enjoying the guy's writing a great deal, but it started to pall. Too much, too soon: "fizzed and popped and tinkled and bonged... scrunch and flump... provocative hullabaloo... tactual materiality... cubic bulk... undensified... brassy and racketing..." And that's just within a few sentences, and the whole goddam essay is like that. But then he named the culprit, Gordon Lish, and I realized what the problem was.
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on April 18, 2009


That, incidentally, is one reason I prefer the Russian Nabokov to the English one. In Russian he kept his love of soundplay and striking rhetorical effects under control; in English he increasingly let it off the leash to the point where it became obtrusive. Not nearly as obtrusive as this, of course, and it's unfair to compare anyone to Nabokov, but I just thought I'd mention it. Note to budding writers: show off by all means, but show off without showing off that you're showing off, dig?
posted by languagehat at 7:38 AM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I agree with you Languagehat. Like in any performance, it's important the writer not be over-gumming up the scenario with obtrusive "Look at me, Ma!! No hands!!" moments, but to Lutz's credit, this is an essay on language and whereas all the ballyhoo and bugaboo (that word doesn"t appear, but many of it's colloquial kissing-cousins, do) and tongue-in-cheekiness with the verified skating on thin ice began to grate just a bit, I mostly attributed to a playfulness and a reflection of the childhood language he was exposed too. Also, a recognition of his audience, who were, and are writers. And whereas, I wouldn't recommend most writers get as carried away as that in their writing the underlying message was clear and it went something like this: TAKE SOME DAMNED CHANCES AND LET'S BLOW THIS LANGUAGE THING WIDE OPEN WITH BEAUTY AND WIT AND PLAYFUL ENGINEERING, DAMMIT!!

By reverse-engineering the sentence landscapes of some good great modern writers on a macro level is fantastic and I was thrilled to read it. For anyone obsessed with writing, it's a mini-Rosetta Stone to sentence structure. The stuff on Delillo alone satisfied a deep thirst to understand the man's alchemical approach to his language-reviving, page-punching sentences (see how I did that? Aren't I great?).

Good writing needs to get down to that level more and to the great gift of opening the eye to that sensate level of sentence word clockwork. I've studied with Maazel, btw and it was a blast, although I haven't read her new book. And Barry Hannah. The piece is worth it for him, all by its lonesome.

Not sure what your beef with Lish is, unless you're one of those --and I'm positive there was a contentious FPP in the blue about it a couple of years ago, from that New Yorker piece, (but I can't be arsed to find it right now)-- who thinks Lish did Carver and readers a bad/disingenuous/ham-fisted/ turn with his, what can be called hyper-editing or subsumed co-authorship. But I don't buy it. I think it was one of the great writer/editor teams --or collaborations-- of the 20th century.

Since Nabakov (with his vastly insane aristocratic education) wrote in both, English and Russian, he had the luxury to tweak for what would appeal to the literary traditions of both cultures. It would make sense that Russian literature would require less whiz-bang concessions and fireworks to Shakespeare and more character exploration on a spiritual and psychological level as in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. And because of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets it seems, and correct me if I'm wrong that, English lends itself to a more poetic, more metered and less motivational over-explanatory-ness. I can't hold that against him, although I'd love to get my hands on an English translation, from the Russian, of Lolita. Maybe Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky could tackle that next (do you like their Russian to English translations BTW?) Makes me wonder how in the Russian he does the word play with the name in the opening? You know, the whole tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap on the teeth bit. Is it more like: Lolita set my loins on fire and brought my soul to sin, and in a delirium, I followed like a hysterical clown chasing a many hued mythical butterfly tossing itself playfully down a verdant country lane etc.. Or something like that.

Anyhow, the piece should come with a disclaimer of sorts, as this is kinda stuff without good storytelling and good solid themes and logic and insight and full spectrum of human emotions, would be pretentious and sad, and the writer would be deserving of a sound ass-whipping. That stuff should be shouldn't be attempted until at least the second revision and more like the sixth, seventh, eight revision. And if it's done right the whole thing might have to scraped with the hard diamond skeleton of a theme story taken out and it being re-written anyway, maybe. (It freaks me out how much time and work decent writing takes.)


(Thanks for this post Plexi. )
posted by Skygazer at 11:24 AM on April 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Skygazer: That was a thoughtful and convincing reply, and to show my gratitude I will do the opening of Lolita for you. First, the Russian:

Лолита, свет моей жизни, огонь моих чресел. Грех мой, душа моя.
Ло-ли-та: кончик языка совершает путь в три шажка вниз по небу, чтобы на
третьем толкнуться о зубы. Ло. Ли. Та.

Now transliterated (with accent marks on stressed syllables that aren't the next-to-last syllable, and an apostrophe to mark palatal consonants and make clear that "moikh" has two separate vowels and syllables rather than a diphthong):

Lolita, svet moyéi zhizni, ogón' mo'ikh chresel. Grekh moi, dushá moyá. Lo-li-ta: konchik yazyká sovershaet put' v tri shazhká vniz po nyobu, chtoby na tret'em tolknuts'a o zuby. Lo. Li. Ta.


And retranslated:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-li-ta: the tip of the tongue accomplishes (or "completes") a trip (or "path") in three little steps down along the palate, in order to knock on the teeth on the third. Lo. Li. Ta.

(You can actually see and hear Nabokov reading those sentences in Russian, with obvious enjoyment, at the link in this post.)
posted by languagehat at 12:26 PM on April 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


Thanks so much for that Languagehat. That's a nice little gift of a window into the Russian Nabokov. Not much difference really, certainly not the over-dramatic alternative I imagined. Really only more of a slight attitudinal change from the jocular Americanized English to the more wounded pathos evoking Russian. Makes me wonder about the default characters of the two cultures/languages/epochs: The 20th century default of helpless, funny tragic self- deprecating Americanized English characterization, which requires that self-consciousness or it rings hollow or suspect.

And the 19th century Russian of Nabakov's mind-bending fabulously privileged genteel family and heritage. Steeped in tragedy and romance and compassion. One necessarily self-deprecating and street smart, and the other is world-weary and unself-consciously earnest and emotional.

Great stuff. Thanks again.
posted by Skygazer at 6:02 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


"This sentence is made of lead (and a sentence of lead gives a reader an entirely different sensation from one made of magnesium). This sentence is made of yak wool. This sentence is made of sunlight and plums. This sentence is made of ice. This sentence is made from the blood of the poet. This sentence was made in Japan. This sentence glows in the dark. This sentence was born with a caul. This sentence has a crush on Norman Mailer. This sentence is a wino and doesn't care who knows it. Like many italic sentences, this one has Mafia connections. This sentence is a double Cancer with a Pisces rising. This sentence lost its mind searching for the perfect paragraph. This sentence refuses to be diagrammed. This sentence ran off with an adverb clause. This sentence is 100 percent organic: it will not retain a facsimile of freshness like thoses sentences of Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe et al., which are loaded with preservatives. This sentence leaks. This sentence doesn't look Jewish... This sentence has accepted Jesus Christ as its personal savior. This sentence once spit in a book reviewer's eye. This sentence can do the funky chicken. This sentence has seen too much and forgotten too little. This sentence is called "Speedoo" but its real name is Mr. Earl. This sentence may be pregnant. This sentence suffered a split infinitive - and survivied. If this sentence has been a snake you'd have bitten it. This sentence went to jail with Clifford Irving. This sentence went to Woodstock. And this little sentence went wee wee wee all the way home. "
-Tom Robbins
posted by puddleglum at 8:41 AM on April 19, 2009


You should always writer with an erection. Even if you are a woman.

-Tom Robbins, 1988
posted by Skygazer at 11:19 AM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


writer = write
posted by Skygazer at 11:21 AM on April 19, 2009


I came across this sentence by Terry Eagleton today, browsing in a bookstore: "Poets, like infants, relish sounds for their own sake." Which both made me laugh and reminded me of the posted essay.
posted by Kattullus at 4:51 PM on May 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


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