Guest blogger, Christine Ratnasingham
A magical part of life, we use sentences to express and communicate. I know their existence is being challenged by the funky shorthand that texting and social media have encouraged us to use, for example, “Tks, u2, ur gr8.” However, whether in person, over the sound and airwaves, or in the written form, sentences are still the primary way we communicate with each other. And with the right structure, words and flow, they have the potential to express something in a fresh and magical way.
As a writer, the sentence is one of my first considerations when I pick up a pen. How will I sketch out this idea? What form should I use to express this thought? Shall I use ambiguous punctuation? Is this idea even a sentence? Shall I use line breaks to emphasise particular ideas or images?
Some of my favourite writers shaped sentences so that the sentences themselves were an integral part of what they were trying to convey. Virginia Woolf often used her sentences to portray stream-of-consciousness, showing how writing could reflect the stream of thoughts running through a person’s mind, which aren’t in the form of polished and perfectly fashioned sentences. Her creative use of sentences and sentence structure has placed her as a great innovator of the English language. The following, from Woolf’s novel The Waves, is a fine example:
Dawn is some sort of whitening of the sky; some sort of renewal. Another day; another Friday; another twentieth of March, January, or September. Another general awakening. The stars draw back and are extinguished. The bars deepen themselves between the waves. The film of mist thickens on the fields. A redness gathers on the roses, even on the pale rose that hangs by the bedroom window. A bird chirps. Cottagers light their early candles. Yes, this is the eternal renewal, the incessant rise and fall and fall and rise again.
The stream-of-consciousness gives Woolf’s description a flow. By not having formal beginnings to the sentences, there’s a magical nature to this description which occurs by introducing imagery and ideas as they are likely to occur in a person’s mind, both simply and poetically. Through this approach, I feel as though I’m almost experiencing this scene, not just reading about it.
Emily Dickinson used the dash in many of her poems. Dickinson’s unique use of punctuation, structure and syntax challenged the conventional rules of poetry in her time. Her use of dashes often replaced other punctuation marks and added both mystery and ambiguity to her words:
What I can do—I will—
Though it be little as a Daffodil—
That I cannot—must be
Unknown to possibility—
If Dickinson had inserted specific punctuation in lieu of the dashes—such as an exclamation mark, a comma or no punctuation marks—she would have added a certain tone to the words. I think by resisting the urge to prescribe a specific tone, the dashes retain a mystical air to the poem, leaving it to the reader to imagine or interpret what the meaning might be.
The search for how to most effectively express something can drive me mad with rewrites, but ultimately, is very satisfying once (and if) that magic sentence is found. It means that the words have come together to express succinctly and faithfully, the thoughts they were intended to articulate.
While at times, I write as something is coming into my mind, without much reflection or forethought, I’ve found that the most magical of moments can occur when I take some time to play around with a sentence or two. If I find myself lingering on a few sentences, not quite ready to move on, and if I can rid myself of the frustration of being ‘stuck’, I have a chance to let go and grab hold of the enchantment, allowing it to carry me to unfamiliar terrain.
Christine Ratnasingham is a Sydney based writer, who was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in England and Australia. She has had her poetry published in the conversations journal, was awarded the HB Higgins Scholarship for Poetry from the University of Melbourne and is currently working on a collection of observations about life in Sydney. She loves reading, travelling, photography and writing. She shares some of writing and photography on her blog, the Peripatetic Writer.
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