In his excellent book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Stanley Fish dissects the elements of style and substance in the basic building block of expression: the sentence. Just like paint translates to art, sentences translate to expression, and in his leisurely yet authoritative tone, Fish goes on to describe the subordinating and the additive styles as two broad style categories to use when creating sentences. He stays away from too much formal, academic instruction, which suits me just fine. The essence of his message is: some sentences use sequential style – one-thing-leads-to-another, and others use apparently random style – train-of-thought. I simplify further: one is fact, one is art.
Everyone employs both styles whether or not they realize it. However, in the past I believe I was only ever aware of the actual process of creating a sentence when I was using the subordinating style. It involves creating an argument and leading the reader towards that argument, allowing them to follow your logic – being a sort of a walking guide, providing direction and pacing. This starkly contrasts the additive style which seems to take a life of its own and wring itself out of your grasp as soon as you set pen to paper – the sentence is flying away, letting observations crowd into it and make themselves at home, ending abruptly after sketching a picture of as much or as little detail as it pleases. Written well, a sentence that uses the additive style seems effortless as it is a perfect fragment of a train of thought, tailored to its context like a fine glove to a hand. Even if we are less aware of the process of creating additive, non-linear statements and sentences, maybe we should indulge in this style more often – in writing and in life.
I immediately think of travel. You can travel both ways: with an agenda and a plan, or with no expectation at all. At times it’s good to know what the next day holds, but sometimes walking out into a new city and seeing what it presents to you makes you appreciate it more. Let the city wash over you – don’t just try to fit it into a must-see list. And the interesting thing is, the best cities, like Paris, will not succumb to being reduced to a check list. You can try to see Paris in a linear way but your impressions will be non-linear; spontaneous; fleeting images; not sequential. It sneaks up on you that way. Maybe that’s why Paris is wonderful – it is non-linear.
Perhaps to truly rest we need – no, necessitate – non-linearity. We have careers that require us to know where we came from, where we are, where we’re going tomorrow, and where we will be in a year. We face questions from everyone around us that force us to create a road map to life. Our days, weeks, months follow a routine more often than not. So, create fewer lists and create more musing thoughts. They are like sirens that, for at least some time, beckon us to travel curving paths that lead us off the highways we so vehemently travel – before once more returning us to the steady stream of everyday traffic.