On their own, sentences are implacably honest. They may be long, short, simple, complex, clear, ambiguous, even incoherent. But they don’t try to hide those qualities. They are what they are and they say what they say. It’s as plain as the words on their faces. The trouble is that most sentences have writers, a fact that readers are well aware of. That makes it hard to consider sentences entirely on their own. Other questions arise. What’s she saying? What did he mean?
To these questions, I’d add another. Does the writer know what that sentence actually says? The answer is routinely no. After years of teaching creative writing, I still find this amazing. It means that, despite themselves, writers are often engaged in acts of unwitting self-contradiction.
Imagine how it works. A writer speaks the language, knows the vocabulary, and tries to honor the rules of grammar and syntax. Yet he regularly produces sentences of whose literal meaning he’s completely unaware. In its own way, this is fantastic, like setting out to knit a cardigan, producing an armoire, and wondering why it’s so loose in the shoulders. Continue reading