3 min read
Toolbox, Ages 9-99
Improve writing immediately
2 Book recs: on writing and on essays
(1) When you haven’t seen someone you love for a while, you notice them anew. The tongue that touches the side of the mouth. The wisps of hair at the temple. The sweet scent of the cheek. When I held my daughter, I inhaled deeply with eyes closed and felt the familiar fit of her body against mine, the soft nest of hair on my lips. She was a soldier now but she would always be my child.
The paragraph above has a topic sentence, then three fragments. Yes, fragments. Like this and the one before it. A fragment is a non-sentence; it does not have a subject and main verb. Students are taught that fragments are errors. Hogwash! Writers use fragments all the time. Your English teacher may not like it and the college admissions office may not either. But, learn to use the fragment.
What makes a good fragment? “A fragment, stripped as it is of connectors, can hold a pure image, a critical moment, the point, or the pivot. Because it is isolated, it is emphatic. A fragment can add detail, minus words that add nothing.” (Long, 177)*
The fragments in paragraph (1) emphasize details, giving the reader a pure image at a critical moment. Can you see the daughter, feel her, smell her sweetness as only a mother can? This is my reunion with Norah after seven weeks, the longest she’s ever been gone.
Here are examples from Mary Oliver’s essay, Upstream.
(2) One tree is like another tree, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether. More or less like people–a general outline, then the stunning individual strokes. Hello Tom, hello Andy. Hello Archibald Violet, and Clarissa Bluebell. Hello Lilian Willow, and Noah, the oak tree I have hugged and kissed every first day of spring for the last thirty years. (p. 3)
(3) Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. The frisky ones–inkberry, lamb’s quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones–rosemary, oregano. (p. 8)
Oliver wrote this essay to describe what it was to be alive, to discover who she was, and what she was meant to do. She won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Nature and life were inexplicably bound. A child and lifelong student of nature, she entreats the reader to bring children into its fold, the fields and the woods, to know of the ‘world salvaged from the lords of profit.’ The poet uses the fragment as short pulses, greetings to the plants and trees: Hello Archibald Violet or Lilian Willow. She lists the frisky ones and the aromatic ones, no verbs necessary.
The fragment for the poet is as natural as breathing and Oliver does so with ease in her prose. She closes this essay with a one sentence paragraph:
Attention is the beginning of devotion.
She ends the first section with a chapter Of Power and Time to describe her loyalty to this inner vision in writing, that when the muse arrives she may be late to some function, better she may not show at all. She must heed her inner vision because: The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power or time.
(4) Wherever I’ve lived my room and soon the entire house is filled with books; poems, stories, histories, prayers of all kinds stand up gracefully or are heaped on shelves, on the floor, on the bed. Strangers old and new offering their words bountifully and thoughtfully, lifting the heart.
But, wait! I’ve made a mistake! how could these makers of so many books that have given so much life–how could they possibly be strangers?
In the fourth example, the fragment in bold has modifying phrases but no verb. It’s a pivot, a delightful metaphor, books / authors are strangers even when old, because–like my daughter who I have not seen for weeks–you may visit with them anew. The fragment sentence is stripped of the connectors, the verbs, the sentence grammar, to yield to the writer and her craft.
Next time you read a book, keep an eye out for fragments. Better, give it a try using examples you find or those above. Oliver died in 2019 but her writing lives and pulses on the page. These passages challenge me to see and feel the physical world, to know for a moment the sublime and do my level best to get it down.
*The Writer’s Portable Mentor: a Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long. 2nd Ed. P. 177.
*Upstream, Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. (Pub 2016). Reading Oliver is like drinking water, smooth and easy with a feeling of being sated. Poetry by Mary Oliver at PoetryFoundation.org.
*Improve writing immediately: Use the examples above or what you come across in your reading as models to practice writing fragments. Follow guidance from The Writer’s Portable Mentor: most fragments are short, vivid, crucial, and hot. Avoid gray, ordinary language.