Punctuate, punctuate

NOW TELL ME WHERE THE COMMA SHOULD BE POSITIONEDPlaying with sentences, with words and lines, is one of my favorite things about writing. (Confidentially, I like messing with sentences better than I like making stuff up-- which can be troublesome if you mean to write fiction.) There are all sorts of rhythmic possibilities and shades of meaning in a line, and a myriad ways you might enrich them, given the right tools. I love punctuation for that reason. It's possible that I love it a little too much; my husband tells me I'm the only person he knows who makes unabashed use of the double dash (which is really just an old-fashioned typewriter stand-in for an em dash). I don't mind telling you that I used to get a lot of flack from teachers and professors for overlong sentences and-- shall we say-- an eager use of particular marks and constructions. I've never really been able to go teetotal, but I do try to be careful with the stuff. It's easy to get sloppy.

Then again. There's a lot of talk going round out there about the English language having become too cluttered, about complex sentence structures being passé, about how the comma is the only mark-- apart from the period-- any self-respecting writer should ever really need. You'll hear teachers use the phrase clean prose a lot, and they'll smile whenever they say it; it is one of those phrases which evokes a certain sense of virtue, similar to that which a tidy room or clean toilet might. While I certainly like the idea of all three, I sometimes feel that the punctuation purists may have lost their sense of adventure. Possibly they've taken Hemingway-- don't get me wrong, I love Hemingway-- a bit too much too heart. Look at me: I'm not afraid of colons. I'm not afraid to use a semicolon, either; for me, it's like a favorite kitchen gadget, like a really good paring knife, or a carrot peeler.

You want to know the only thing you'll ever need to know about using semicolons? This is it: semicolons are end punctuation. They go where periods go. As long as the clause on either side of a semicolon is a complete sentence, and the content of the sentences relate directly to each other in some way, you're good. There. Easy. See?*

Exercise Two in Le Guin's Steering the Craft reacquaints writers with punctuation by forcing them to write without it. I would never have thought to do anything like this, and it's a lot more difficult than it looks.

Write a paragraph to a page (150-300 words) of narrative with no punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices).

Suggested Subject: A group of people engaged in a hurried or hectic or confused activity, such as a revolution, or the first few minutes of a one-day sale. (34)**

I did this one twice; my first attempt resulted in a soliloquy of sorts, rather than a narrative proper.

Attempt One

Aunt Millie never shuts her mouth why just the other day she was blabbering on the phone about how she'd been to the market and how they had no bananas that weren't green and I mean there have to be some green bananas on the shelf don't there you want bananas that are a least a bit green at the start of a week don't you otherwise they go black don't they yes they go all brown and spotty and soft if you leave them too long and then you have to freeze them if you want any use out of them at all otherwise they get fruit flies and you don't want that no dear yes that's right well anyway Aunt Millie just went on and on about the green bananas and I said to her I told her no one's all that interested in bananas now Aunt Millie how about pineapples they're interesting what about them I said but she didn't hear me she wasn't even listening once she gets going there's no stopping her and she never even noticed my teasing and I suppose I shouldn't tease really especially when she's blind to it like that it's a bit cruel of me isn't it but still she just went on and on it was nonstop this that and heaven knows what all else there was the lady who blocked the tea aisle with her trolley so Aunt Millie had to go all the way round the other end to get her tea and then all the way back to get the milk as she'd forgotten the milk and then all the way round again to the cheese counter and the cheesemonger who was so terribly rude so awfully rude though between you and me dear it doesn't take much to offend Aunt Millie these days now does it no I know dear it doesn't but apparently the girl on the till was very nice very helpful even gave Aunt Millie a voucher an extra 15 pence off the cheese that was you know dear I think I might have to shop there myself from now on even if they don't know how to keep their bananas properly yes dear I think I might dear

I did this exercise a second time, to see if it was possible to write something other than a block of run-on dialogue, but it turned from narration to conversation again very quickly-- and on top of that, my narrator got flippant. It's strange how I found myself resisting the idea of writing without breaks of any kind, considering that I love rhythmic constructions that sweep the reader along. To me an unpunctuated, run-on construction suggests stream-of-consciousness, either on the part of the narrator or a character-- a coherent (or even not-so-coherent) thought happening in "real time" as the story unfolds. I find it difficult to make it work another way, as the next paragraph demonstrates. The following is actually a revision of what's in my notebook; this time I've tried to be a bit more serious about it.

Attempt Two

They tried they tried so hard to get up the hill but the hill was steep and Gwendolyn kept slipping in the ankle-deep mud and Eric's foot gave out after a while probably a fracture they decided and they dragged themselves back to the overturned car and huddled against it out of the wind they sat there without speaking and the wind oh the wind was so cold it moaned in the trees just like it does in films and novels but it wasn't a film or a novel it was happening right then to them they wrapped their arms about each other's shoulders and shivered and waited for what seemed like hours but no one came and eventually they fell asleep like that frozen against each other they slept so soundly that they never heard the sirens and were never to know that there was not one ambulance but two nor did they ever meet the wideeyed newlyweds who'd seen the hole in the barrier as they drove along and known just known that something had happened that something was wrong and that if they didn't make the call no one would

I prefer the first of the two paragraphs. The second might work better if it narrated some more urgent action on the part of Gwen and Eric than I've given them-- if it focused, say, only upon their efforts to climb out of the ravine, and if the ravine had begun to fill up with water. Or snow. Or lava. Even so: it's interesting to see what happens when the mechanisms of the language you use aren't there, and what sorts of methods you might fall back on as a writer to compensate.

Le Guin does suggest that the writer return to the exercise after a week or so and punctuate what she's written, and see what sorts of possibilities for telling the story arise: I've gone ahead and done that here.

Attempt Three
They tried. They tried so hard to get up the hill, but the hill was steep; Gwendolyn kept slipping in the ankle-deep mud. After a while, Eric's foot gave out, and he could no longer bear to walk on it. Probably a fracture, they decided. They dragged themselves back to the overturned car and huddled against it, out of the wind.

They sat for a long time without speaking, the wind moaning in the trees just like it does in films, and in novels about kids who get stranded in the woods in midwinter. But it isn't a film or a novel, Gwen kept telling herself, it's happening. It's happening now, right now, right here, to me. They wrapped their arms about each other's shoulders and shivered, waited and shivered; it felt like hours. No one came. Eventually they fell asleep like that, frozen against each other, and slept so soundly that they never heard the sirens, when there were sirens. Indeed there was not one ambulance in the end, but two, screaming along the treelined ridge at the top of the hill.

The wideeyed newlyweds who'd made the call stood and watched the EMS team clamber down the hillside; they slipped into the blackness, flashlight beams casting this way and that, never falling on anything that made sense. After a minute the man and his pretty young wife turned and climbed back into their car. She had known before he did that something had happened; as they drove down the dark, empty road, listening to Elvis belt "Hound Dog" low on the radio, she felt it; she felt it even before they noticed the heavy tire marks on the pavement, or the loose rubber on the road, or hole in the barrier. She'd known all along that something was wrong, and that she was the only one who knew; she snuggled into her coat and stared through the windshield, down the highway. There had been a moment, as they approached the barrier, when she thought she might tell her husband not to stop. She wished now that she had.
If you'd like to try the exercise, as before, feel free to post it in the comments, or give a link to your own blog. Have you got a favorite punctuation mark, or sentence construction, that you like to use (or overuse)? Are there any rules of usage that make you impatient? How often do you tinker with various sentence constructions, or different ways of punctuating, as you write?


*Okay, there's one other rule: you can also use a semicolon to separate parts of a list that follow a colon. In such a case you'd use it to separate long phrases from each other, especially when those phrases contain commas already; the semicolons would go where commas would normally go.

For example: here is the first item in my list, and you'll notice it's very long; a second item follows, and it too includes a comma; here's a third.

Note that the structure of each phrase in the list should mirror that of the next, unless it's the one on the end-- at that point, you can get away with a different construction. Most of the time.

**Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 34.


spacedlaw said...

Sounds like a fun exercise but I really feel out of breath reading the punctuation less paragraphs.
After all I love Proust and he HAD to be a master of the art in order to drag his sentences for a page and a half...
(Did teach me the virtues of writing short and concise sentences, he did)

Jess said...

Those punctuationless ones were hard to do-- I think it takes a very deft hand to pull it off. I don't think I did it that well, but it was fun to mess with. It made me very conscious, too, of how and why I tend to punctuate things the way I do-- and that's something I don't give much thought to, normally. I think it's good to be reminded of that sort of thing, and to reminded of the need to be conscious of it-- whether you're a beginning writer or you've been at it for donkeys. :)

Jennifer said...

Nice graphic! I had a Dalek teacher once. They're such sticklers about punctuation, punctuality, puncturing—all that sort of thing.

I'm collecting these exercises into a file and will try them out very soon. (I've been working like crazy to finish the coffee pot story I drafted ages ago, and if it drives me bonkers, I will, I will, I WILL have the damned thing off my desk by next week!)

I always get teased about my supposed overuse of punctuation, and it's definitely true that when the situation is such that a mark can either be included or left out, I will usually include it. (This has caused many a kerfluffle over the years when I was editing for monies.) I love punctuation marks. Not only are they useful in creating visual and rhythmic pauses, but they provide visual interest as well. When I scan over a page, seeing punctuation makes me feel as though there's a lot of interesting things going on in those sentences, whereas vast, unbroken strings of words intimidate my eyes and make me want to tuck the book away in the crawlspace under the stairs.

I think em dashes and commas are my favorites.

I love long, complex sentences, but I also love short, tidy ones. I can't understand folks who don't see the value of both and are always calling for writers to prefer one over the other. My favorite writers use both to achieve different effects. I think it was Raymond Carver who said that John Gardner told him to read all of Faulkner and then to read all of Hemingway to clean the Faulkner out of his system. A writer (or reader, for that matter) can definitely OD on either extreme (at least, I do.)