The Long and Winding Sentence

Dear Friends,

Holly and I are both currently in residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. It’s like writing camp: every day is full of interesting talks, conversations, classes, readings. Everyone’s excited to be here. As faculty, I look forward to this chance to be in communion with fellow writers, to remember what brought me to writing in the first place.

Every year, it seems, some theme arises for me, and this year it’s a simple one: the sentence. I remembered I love the sentence. And, if you’re a writer, you must love sentences too. I don’t mean platonic love. I don’t mean liking something the way you like, say, chocolate or Friday Night Lights or the color blue. I mean LOVE. I mean wallowing around in it, full-bodied, mooning-in-your-pajamas love.

I sat in on a class led by Suzanne Berne, where we scrutinized sentences. Sentences that worked and sentences that didn’t.  I could have done that all day. When the time was up, I begged for more. I revealed my true inner nerd. But then again, Annie Dillard once wrote:

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?”

Sometimes we get all caught up in WHAT we’re trying to say, forgetting that the HOW of saying it is really the writer’s work. And the HOW can reveal so much of our inner selves, our true voices.

Personally, I’m a fan of the long sentence. The sentence that keeps exploring deeper and deeper, suspending itself in space and time, breathing in and out, until something both unexpected and inevitable opens up at the end. Here at RWW, I taught a class on E.B. White and had the students pick out memorable “White” sentences; here’s one, from his classic “Death of a Pig”:

From the lustiness of a healthy pig a man derives a feeling of personal lustiness; the stuff that goes into the trough and is received with such enthusiasm is an earnest of of some later feast of his own, and when this suddenly comes to an end and the food lies stale and untouched, souring in the sun, the pig’s imbalance becomes the man’s, vicariously, and life seems insecure, displaced, transitory.

Ah. Do you hear it? The rhythm of thought, the rhymes, the momentum? Do you hear how that one simple clause, “souring in the sun,” allows us to hold still a moment in this contemplative space, to be suspended, before the drumbeat of “insecure, displaced, transitory” brings us to the inevitable, melancholy insight? This line ends a section, so a gap follows, in which we hear the bell tolling not only for the ailing pig, but for us all. (Luckily, White’s “vile old dachshund” Fred, comes bounding into the breach, wiggling his rump and lifting our spirits….)

In this busy world, it can be tempting to forego the long thought, the slow thought, for quicker bullets of information or story. Pico Iyer has written on this subject beautifully; in his article for the L.A. Times, “The Point of the Long and Winding Sentence,” he opens by telling us that he’s been accused of writing too-long sentences. His response?

“I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment…. Nowadays the planet is moving too fast … and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light…

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.”

So, I know that the way we read now can be so much different, and that I’ve already violated some of the unspoken blog rules about writing short, concise, bulleted points. But what say you, dear reader? Do you have any favorite long sentences that rattle around in your head?

For just 10 minutes, write the longest sentence you can. Don’t stop. Let the sentence breath through you. Where does this sentence lead?

With gratitude,


4 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Sentence

  1. I love long sentences so much. Adrienne Rich has written some wonderful ones. Here is one from her essay, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.”

    “What frightened me most was the sense of drift, of being pulled along on a current which called itself my destiny, but in which I seemed to be losing touch with whoever I had been, with the girl who had experienced her own will and energy almost ecstatically at times, walking around a city or riding a train at night or typing in a student room.”

      • Me too, thank you for that sentence, both its content and its execution. Why did we give that up again? And also, how is this beautiful long sentence constructed so that it’s all of a piece rather than a run-on thought exercise that uses “and” and commas and semicolons to avoid the period.

        • I’m glad you commented on the actual construction of the sentence, Barb. Yes, some long sentences are just run-ons, clauses hitched together with conjunctions, but this is much more interesting and carries us along with the young girl as she’s remembering. Thanks for posting this great sentence, Bridgett–and reminding me of that great essay by Adrienne Rich, too.