The Gift of Gab: Mastering the Maximal

As beginning writers, we're often counseled to cut our sentences down to size. And no wonder—beginning writing tends to be full of redundancies, mixed metaphors, and clauses (of often questionable relevance) stacked ceiling to floor. So you learn to limit your youthful excesses and voila! You've got hard, crisp sentences that don't fuck around. 

Damn, you think. Me and Hemingway, chillin'.

Which is all well and good if Hemingway is your thing. But what if you're not naturally inclined toward minimalism? What if you've always preferred writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Vladimir Nabokov? What if your idea of idea of good time is prose that swings and sings and lifts its skirt as it twirls around, lifting off the earth for a moment or two, drunk on cheap champagne, before it sets foot, breathless, back on the ground?

If that's your jam, minimalism is bound to feel like a straightjacket, stifling your creativity even as it keeps you from doing anything stupid. Which, I believe, touches on the heart of the matter, from the standpoint of creative writing instruction: it's far easier to teach people how to prune their prose than it is to help them grow that wild thing that is most uniquely their own.

If you've got the gift of gab, I say, use it. And by use it, I mean learn how to work skillfully with long sentences by mastering the many uses of the maximal, of which the following are just a few.

1. Approximating the actual quality of thought

The term stream of consciousness was coined by the psychologist William James and popularized as a literary style by writers like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. The idea is that in making use of longer sentences, you can more closely approximate the way we actually think, which is more of a stream—unbroken and associative, with one thought/feeling/observation flowing right on into the next—than a start-and-stop affair. (To my mind, it's no coincidence that Hemingway's short sentences generally revealed objective surfaces while Woolf's long ones generally revealed subjective depths.)

In Woolf's To the Lighthouse, you may recall a dinner party in which the matriarch, Mrs. Ramsay, the hub of the family and its extended community, is struck by the odd feeling of having fallen out of an eddy—the eddy being the movement of emotions that make relationships matter. She looks at her husband and cannot imagine how she ever felt anything for him. She's struck by "the sterility of men"—the simple fact that if she does not make conversation at this table and, in so doing, make the act of life go, absolutely no one else will.

But then Mrs. Ramsay turns to one of her dinner guests:

And so then, she concluded, addressing herself by bending silently in his direction to William Bankes—poor man! who had no wife, and no children and dined alone in his lodgings except for tonight; and in pity for him, life being now strong enough to bear her on again, she began all this business, as a sailor not without weariness sees the wind fill his sail and yet hardly wants to be off again thinks how, had the ship sunk, he would have whirled round and round and found rest on the floor of the sea.

At which point Mrs. Ramsay addresses Mr. Bankes and once again dedicates herself to the effort of small talk.

There is hardly any separation here between the action (bending toward Mr. Bankes), the emotion (being moved by pity for him), and the thought (that in finding herself moved thus once more, Mrs. Ramsay is like the reluctant sailor returning to sea). It's a fine effect that closely mirrors our actual experience of the world.

2. Painting a complex portrait

In Nabokov's Ada, the character after whom the novel is named is the great love of the protagonist, Van (who, scandalously, may or may not be her cousin). Van's love for Ada is what makes this novel so poignant, touched as it is by the intensity of both first love and intellectual attraction: raised in the same aristocratic milieu, Ada, like Van, is a precocious polymath who speaks many languages, and their childhood banter has a quality that could not possibly be approximated by any experience he'll have later on in adulthood. 

So when Ada racks up an unbelievable score in their multilingual Scrabble game when they're just tweens, the manner in which Van sees her could not possibly be approached in short, simple sentences. The emotions—among them a nostalgia rivaled only by Proust—are too complex for that:

The bloom streaking Ada's arm, the pale blue of the veins in its hollow, the charred-wood odor of her hair shining brownly next to the lampshade's parchment (a translucent landscape with Japanese dragons), scored infinitely more points [with Van] than those tensed fingers bunched on the pencil stub could ever hope to add up in the past, present, or future.

3. Continuous actions rendered as continuous

Why split a single action up into multiple sentences? In many instances, a longer sentence will more closely approximate the actual length of time a longer unit of action takes to complete.

For instance, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a plague of insomnia takes over the town of Macondo. What is insomnia but a kind of run on sentence that cannot, by force of effort or will, be punctuated by the blessed full stop of sleep?

Garcia reproduces that state with a sentence like this:

They would gather together to converse endlessly, to tell over and over for hours on end the same jokes, to complicate to the limits of exasperation the story about the capon [a castrated rooster], which was an endless game in which the narrator asked if they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and when they answered yes, the narrator would say that he had not asked them to say yes, but whether they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and when they answered no, the narrator told them that he had not asked them to say no, but whether they wanted to hear the story about the capon, and when they remained silent, the narrator told them that he had not asked them to remain silent but whether they wanted to hear the story about the capon, and no one could leave because the narrator would say that he had not asked them to leave but whether they wanted him to tell them the story about the capon, and so on and on in a vicious circle that lasted entire nights.

What better way to render the actual exasperation associated with insomnia than this ridiculous game, rendered in one ridiculous sentence? It's the literary equivalent of the campfire song "Found a Peanut." You can almost feel yourself losing your mind.

4. Collective consciousness

In Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie posits a group of children, born at the exact stroke of midnight on the day of India's independence, with magical powers. Among these powers is the ability to be in constant psychic communication with one another. Such a soup of thought, feeling, and association, with the edges between entities blurred away, could not possibly be rendered by short sentences.

Rushdie waxes so maximal in service of this that some of his sentences stretch nearly the length of a page, mixing the hopes, dreams, ambitions, and preoccupations of "midnight's children" into a single train of thought (the Conference) that sounds as if it could in fact be the collective consciousness of post-independence India itself.

I won't transcribe any of the sentences of that length because I believe this one will do:

Nowhere, in the thoughts of the Conference, could I find anything as new as ourselves…but then I was on the wrong track, too; I could not see any more clearly than anyone else; and even when Soumitra the time-traveler said, "I'm telling you—all this is pointless—they'll finish us before we start!" we all ignored him; with the optimism of youth—which is a more virulent form of the same disease that infected my grandfather Aadam Aziz—we refused to look on the dark side, and not a single one of us suggested that the purpose of Midnight's Children might be annihilation; that we would have no meaning until we were destroyed.

In this sentence, Rushdie includes a specific voice (Soumitra's), a collective voice ("we"), and his own ("I"), while drawing connections between what has happened in the past (the disease that infected his grandfather) and what will happen in the future (their annihilation). You can't perform those sorts of mental gymnasts with short sentences.

5. Realizations

Most stories contain, in some sense, points of epiphany, and epiphanies, as a rule, are not easily stated. On this point, I'd like to leave you with a final sentence from a contemporary maximalist whose work I admire, Kellie Wells.

In her short story "My Guardian, Claire" (from the collection Compression Scars), the protagonist, after the death of his mother, has gone to live with his godmother, who may or may not be totally nuts. She oscillates between bouts of cheery spoiling (bordering, disturbingly, on flirtation) and depressive episodes (bordering on paralysis, during which she does not eat). 

When Claire emerges from one of her funks to picnic with the protagonist (dangerously, at a drive-through animal safari), the POV narrator has this to say:

I wondered if it could last, if she'd savor that arm-in-arm companionship again, if it would be like before, when the warmth we shared—each of us clumsily reckoning with loss—kept the boxed-up memories from haunting her, from making her sit so still and dead, staring at her knees, our intimacy interrupted by phantoms whose sternness she buckled beneath.

All of this stuff, we understand, intuitively, comes to the protagonist in a flash. But in order for us as readers to feel that thing for ourselves, its emotional contours, which encompass both the present and the past, must be set forth in detail (the arm-in-arm companionship, the warmth and its contrast with the woman sitting so still and dead, staring at her knees). Once we've unpacked all this, we can reassemble this complex thing as a single feeling rather than a series of feelings. Which, like many of the ways long sentences can be used, more closely approximates the experience itself.

Mastering long sentences will not turn you into Marquez any more than mastering short ones will turn you into Hemingway. But it will, I believe, give you more room to run as a stylist—and maybe even make writing more fun. 

Susan DeFreitas

Column by Susan DeFreitas

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami December 5, 2014 - 9:39pm

I think ordinarily I would prefer to read simplicated prose, or prose that is simple yet speaks of complex truth.

Although I'll just add for sake of informality, Virginia Woolf sounds like an absolute blast to read.

I am wondering though, you mentioned Hemingway. I'm wondering couldn't you actually do something similar to what Woolf did, but combine it with say the storytelling style of In A Bamboo Grove?

I'm almost thinking, if you had three different narrators with their own voice, you could in theory have different versions of those events in order to reach an objective truth in more depth, then otherwise going for minimalism.

Just a guess of course.

I have to actually think about longer sentences.:/

Brian Dunn's picture
Brian Dunn from Phoenix, AZ is reading multiple things January 20, 2015 - 10:37am

I'm so glad to hear this.

Minimalism can be great, but I don't think it's the be-all-end-all of writing. Like you say, Susan, style is sacrificed on the altar of brevity (I think humor is also a frequent victim), and I have no problem taking the scenic route as a reader--so long as it's with an author whose writing delights me.

I'd hate to think what would've resulted had John Kennedy Toole and Charles Portis and David Foster Wallace decided to go bare bones with their prose.