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Ellen Blum Barish

Ellen Blum Barish
Sensational Sentences

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When we read something that we really respond to, that makes us pause or prompts us to read it again, it’s the sentence that connects us to the work. Sometimes, it can be just a phrase. We couldn’t possibly remember every word we read. When we tell others why we liked something, we try to reconjure the exact words.

I’ve been asking my students to pay attention to sensational sentences, the emphasis on words that activate the senses.  I urge them to underline, asterisk or highlight them; to write them down so they can see their structure and hear their rhythm.

Here are a few I’ve liked from recent reading:

On witnessing two people leaping from the South Tower, hand in hand, on September 11, Brian Doyle wrote in “Leap,”

“I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers but I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.”

On standing up in a field of cows on an English hillside, G. K. Chesterton wrote in “A Piece of Chalk,”

“Then I suddenly stood up and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee.”

In the opening of her essay, “Traveling Mercies,” Anne Lamott wrote,

“Broken things have been on my mind lately because so much has broken in my life and in the lives of people I love – hearts, health, confidence.”

Like the fresh vegetables in a salad compared to the bland, uni-size frozen versions, we recall the taste of that sweet red pepper or crisp garden cucumber or the surprise of black olive, chopped parsley or feta cheese. Maybe we are struck by how the vegetables are sliced. Because it can be in the fewest words that writers leave their impression.

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  • steve
    March 30, 2013

    “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” In the two opening sentences of Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon sets a mood of terror.

    • Ellen
      March 30, 2013

      This is a perfect example of two, independently awesome sentences that are short, to the point and very expressive made only more so by being pared together. Powerful, indeed! Thanks for passing them along!

  • katie
    March 30, 2013

    love !

    ps in anne lamott’s should it be broken THINGS plural?

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