I used to teach in a continuing education program at the University of Iowa that offered classes of all sorts to retirees. An exercise I liked to present to my students was one I found over at this blog that had to do with writing the perfect sentence. Here’s the little excerpt I would hand out in class to read and discuss:
I was given the task in school of writing a perfect sentence, in accordance with Donald Barthelme’s perfect writing assignment that he used to give his students. The perfect sentence is one that is i) surprising, ii) in some sense true, iii) beautiful, and iv) possessed of a metaphysical dimension. His example of a sentence fulfilling only condition i, and of a sentence fulfilling only conditions i and ii, are both fantastic: the former is “It has always been my desire to sleep with — that is, to have sexual intercourse with — The New York Review of Books,” and the latter is “The aim of literature is the creation of a strange object covered with fur, which breaks your heart.” His example of a perfect sentence, one that meets all four criteria, is from Kafka and goes like this: “Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial chalices dry; this occurs repeatedly, again and again: finally it can be reckoned upon beforehand, and becomes part of the ceremony.” That is a great Kafka sentence, to be sure. Our professor in this class provided us with a selection of sentences that he had culled for their perfection, and a lot of them were good, but none of them were as good as that Kafka sentence, and I think the reason why is that the sentences culled from their homes are, while indeed building blocks of meaning, building blocks more like Legos than anything else.
We discussed Barthelme’s criteria for the perfect sentence, whether we found them to be worthy, what beautiful sentences anyone had found in the previous week’s reading, etcetera. Then I tasked them all with writing a perfect sentence per Barthelme’s guidelines.
One of my favorite students was a cantakerous old lady who talked whenever she wanted to (even when other people were talking) and supposedly could not hear a word anyone said, though this may have been a ploy on her part to be able to talk whenever she pleased. She would pretend to be shy to share her work, but I could tell she liked reading it, liked writing it, that she had some things to say. That day in class many students read many beautiful sentences and then I asked for one more. I called the cantankerous lady out. Would she read us hers? She reluctantly agreed, and then read with great enunciation and spirit the following sentence:
The gums fell on the sidewalk, and then a turtle came along and took them up to heaven.
I laughed really, really hard and then I asked her to read it over. It was so brilliant and surprising and insane. She recited it again and we all just sat there open-mouthed, grinning, with absolutely nothing to say.
Talking about what a perfect sentence looks and sounds like is a good way to emphasize close reading and writing and to push students out of their normal comfort zones. Hold on to your dentures. Watch out for flying turtles. I’ll see you in heaven.
Rachel Yoder is a founding editor of draft and lives in Iowa City. More at racheljyoder.com.
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