Monday, August 20, 2012

Do You Like Paragraphs?

Stanley Fish begins his How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One (read the chapter here) with a story first told by Annie Dillard. Here's how she tells it:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?"
"Well," the writer said, "I don't know. . . . Do you like sentences?"
The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of the paint." (From The Writer's Life, reprinted in Three by Annie Dillard, p. 591, excerpted in the New York Times Book Review)

It's important to keep in mind that Fish and Dillard are thinking about "writing" in literary terms. The student wanted to be a writer of "belles lettres", fine writing. If a student was to ask me,"Do you think I could be a scholar?" I would answer differently: Do you like paragraphs?

Like Fish, I would say it's about how to write and read them. If you don't like expressing yourself in paragraphs, or if reading them bores you, then you will probably not enjoy the work. You have to have, as Fish puts it, "a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium". And, in the case of scholarly writing, that material is composed, in an essential way, into paragraphs.

The novelist or short-story writer or essayist can concentrate, I'm sure, on sentences. The reader is moved along by their rhythm and experiences the break between paragraphs mainly as a part of this rhythm. The poet's material is perhaps even more finely grained: composed of the turn of phrase. ("Strophe" means "turn".) But scholars must compose themselves roughly six sentences and 150-200 words at a time. They must always say something, some one thing that can be stated in a simple declarative sentence, and then support it with about five sentences more. As I've said before, the paragraph is the unit of scholarly composition.

It's important to find your métier. If you are drawn to beautiful sounding phrases, you may be a poet. If you like sentences, perhaps you are a novelist. Scholarly writing can benefit from good phrases and good sentences, of course, but it cannot rely on them, and it must not get hung up on them. To enjoy the scholarly literature you must be able to appreciate paragraphs, the composition of ideas into groups of sentences that clearly state and support identifiable ideas. You are not just evoking images or telling a story. You are communicating what you know.


Andrew Shields said...

What does one write if one likes words? "Mais Dégas, on n'écrit pas des poèmes avec des idées, on écrit des poèmes avec les mots."

Thomas said...

I think you just talk then. Or paint signs?