This is the fifteenth in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I spend a fair amount of time studying long sentences. They’re true to how I think and speak and I’m interested in how that plays a part in writing memoir, not only here’s what happened to me at seven or sixteen or twenty-three but also here’s what my voice sounded like, for example at twenty-three I was working during the day, grad school at night, drinking a lot, not sleeping much—my thoughts were cotton balls, fuzzy in my head—not to mention I was reading a ton of Virginia Woolf (omg, you can DO that? I thought when I first read her running sentences, immediately followed by wait, HOW did she do that? immediately followed by I want to do that! by which I meant try to do that and I did, I tried, I’ve been trying for years, I’m trying right now) and how do I craft that me-at-twenty-three voice in a way that feels honest to the girl I used to be? And what about this voice, me-at-forty-one, sitting here at my desk looking back and trying to make sense of it all? I’m interested in how the two tangle together, both on the page and in my memory, and sentence structure is part of that so what I do is attack my bookshelf—Woolf and Jamaica Kincaid and Jose Saramago and Elizabeth Crane (omg, you can DO that? I thought when I first read her collection When the Messenger Is Hot, and again with her new one, Turf, which I’m reading right now and TOTALLY NOT JEALOUS OF HOW GOOD IT IS. At the time, she lived in my same neighborhood in Chicago, and one day we had coffee and—this blew my mind—she spoke the way she wrote. Her sentences go and go and go, on the page and out loud. It felt so revelatory. You could probably see the light bulb turning on over my head)—and now I sit here with their pages and my pencil, circling punctuation, circling adverbs, circling adjectives. I’m really into adverbs and adjectives. Give me thirty seconds and I’ll talk your face off. I’m re-reading Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. and he doesn’t use them much, just BANG POW VERB, as opposed to Faulkner (I’m looking at Light in August, if you want to play along at home) and he uses two or three in a row, like the rickety, squeaky, wooden wagon wheel and sometimes, when he really wants to slow the reader down he’ll add an and between each like the rickety and squeaky and wooden wagon wheel and this is why (in part) (it’s got to be more complicated than just adjectives, right?) (or maybe it really is that simple?) the nine-page sentence by Faulkner reads slow-motion-slow and the nine-pager by Selby goes by like a lightning bolt and holy shit, how amazing is that? Writers reaching across decades, through their pages and into my own imagination; they control its volume and movement and speed. I want to do that. By which I mean try to do that. And I am. I’m trying. I’ve been trying for years. I’m trying right now.
Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections including The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, forthcoming this August from Harper Perennial. Her work appears in Best American Essays, the New York Times, Guernica, the Rumpus, and on National Public Radio.