Myths & shibboleths
Bumblehill in snow

Sentences & Mermaids

Sea Nymph by Edward Burne-Jones

It's my personal belief that it's not possible to be a truly good writer without a love of words and sentences. Plotting and storytelling skills will only you take you so far, for writing is the art of language: how it rests on the page, how it sounds in the mind's ear, how it sinks down deep like a stone thrown into the unconscious, leaving ripples of metaphor and meaning behind. Today's quotes come from a variety of writers, reflecting on sentences and the writer's craft.

The mermaid art is a response to the beautiful poems by Jane Yolen and Wendy Howe in the comments under yesterday's post.

Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

Stanley Fish:

"In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked by a student, 'Do you think I could be a writer?' 'Well,' the writer said, 'do you like sentences?' The student is surprised by the question, but Dillard knows exactly what was meant. He was being told, she explains, that 'if he likes sentences he could begin,' and she remembers a similar conversation with a painter friend. 'I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I like the smell of paint." The point, made implicitly (Dillard does not belabour it), is that you don't begin with a grand conception, either of the great American novel or masterpiece that will hang in the Louvre. You begin with a feel for the nitty-gritty material of the medium, paint in one case, sentences in the other."

A Mermaid by John William Waterhouse

Annie Proulx:

"A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say -- which is where a lot of writers stop -- and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story….

"There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works."

The Land Baby by John Collier

Barbara Kingsolver:

"My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it's because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head."

Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Ernest Hemingway:

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences and I have to get rid of them fast -- talk them or write them down."

Mermaid by Howard Pyle

Colm Tóibín:

"The sentences I write have their roots in song and poetry, and take their bearings from music and painting, as much as from the need to impart mere information, or mirror anything. I am not a realist writer, even if I seem like one."

Murmur of Pearls by Gina Litherland

Alice McDermott:

"I've got to hear the rhythm of the sentences; I want the music of the prose. I want to see ordinary things transformed not by the circumstances in which I see them but by the language with which they're described."

The Little Mermaid by Edmund Dulac

John Burnside:

"I love long sentences. My big heroes of fiction writing are Henry James and Proust -- people who recognize that life doesn't consist of declarative statements, but rather modifications, qualifications and feelings."

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

Gwendolyn Brooks:

"My sentences tend to be short and rather spare. I'm more your paragraph kind of gal."

Merfolk by Virginia Lee

John Banville:

"When you're writing there's a deep, deep level of concentration way beyond your normal self. This strange voice, these strange sentences come out of you."

Undine by Arthur Rackham

Wendell Berry:

"A sentence is both the opportunity and limit of thought-- what we have to think with, and what we have to think in."

The Little Mermaid by Sulamith Wulfing

Jhumpa Lahiri:

"Even printed, on pages that are bound, sentences remain unsettled organisms. Years later, I can always reach out to smooth a stray hair. And yet, at a certain point, I must walk away, trusting them to do their work. I am left looking over my shoulder, wondering if I might have structured one more effectively."

Mermaid in Flight by Fay Ku

Zadie Smith:

"Don't romanticize your 'vocation.' You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no 'writer's lifestyle.' All that matters is what you leave on the page."

Looking for mermaids

The Little Mermaid by Helen Stratton

 The pictures are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)


Sometimes A Long Sentence

is like the chimera's tail,
twists and turns,
delivers a sting,
but other times
it lazes, curls like
the tag end of waves
broken and beached,
or meanders through a meadow
of metaphors,
its gurgle being
the grace notes
before it empties
into the sea,
or like an oxbow
bends back upon itself,
forcing rivulets,
waterspouts of nouns,
adverbs as useless as foam.

Other times
it is short.
Snaps whiplike.
Spits blood.
Splits the air.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Not being a poet, but an artist in clay, I do think similar thoughts about sentences (perhaps for blogs.) Today I woke thinking how the speed of speech is hard to mold into written word...would you just runthewordstogether, to mold words into speech that ran quickly? I'm reading one word at a time, and the space between is my own rhythm. How.about.just.punctuating.with a period to make a run-on, or the hyphen? I'm appreciative of the wonderful conversations between poets that have been occurring in these comments! I sometimes have to go back the next day to see how far they went!

as a Piscean I often feel like a fish out of water, love seeing this gathering of mermaids!

Hi Jane

You do not get a more stunning and engaging opening than this --

is like the chimera's tail,
twists and turns,
delivers a sting,
but other times
it lazes, curls like
the tag end of waves
broken and beached,
or meanders through a meadow
of metaphors,
its gurgle being
the grace notes
before it empties
into the sea,

Beautiful and dynamic this characterization of the "Long sentence" drew me right in, I can feel, hear and taste it.

And and yes too many modifiers, adverbs or adjectives, can become "useless as foam", such a perfect and unique comparison.

Loved this one, also a perfect complement to the mermaid/undine art on today's blog.

Thank you for this,
so lovely!

Hi Terri

What breathtaking paintings of the mermaid, including some of my favorite by Waterhouse and Rackham. I also find mermaids and water art, especially Pre-Raphaelite and that of the 19th century illustrations so enchanting. And thank you for mentioning my poem from yesterday along with Jane's gorgeous,gorgeous poem on "the mysterious". I deeply, deeply appreciate it!

And if I had to choose one of the perspectives regarding my own writing, I would probably find my stuff closest to the quote by Colm Toibin

"The sentences I write have their roots in song and poetry, and take their bearings from music and painting, as much as from the need to impart mere information, or mirror anything" ... I love his point of view and can personally relate to it.

Again, thank you so much!
Take care

Raised in Florida, and perched now in the Pacific NW, mermaids have always been near my heart. As a child, I prayed to be one. To discover some way to live in the sea and escape the difficulties of my life, to find the adventure and love I missed. Writing and reading brought me closer, ever closer to that dream. They still do, though my life on land is no longer one I'd so soon abandon. I'm so grateful for that and for you. Thank you for this beautiful collection of images and thoughts on writing, Terri. You are our guiding light.

Thanks, Wendy. It went against my normal grain, not having periods to break up that long,clause-filled verse. But I was making a point. So thanks!


Just some more thoughts on water spirits and the origin & power of sentences that lead somewhere creative, hopefully.

Sometimes, an encounter with a unfamiliar word that introduces a new concept, can lead to an idea that develops into a story or poem. That one term can erupt into long and short sentences that voice something magical from past experience and the knowledge culled from that verbal interaction. This happened to me when googling through various subject matter related to cloth and weaving. I came across the concept of "the bleach field" where I learned that certain fields in England and other places ( in the 19th and early 20th centuries) were used to bleach clothing through the action of the elements, wind, sun and water. It was also synonymous with "bleaching green" and "croft". I then began imagining these fields situated on cliffs above the sea and thought of the man who captures a selkie for his wife. Desperate to keep her, he might try something different than concealing the animal pelt, something like attempting to bleach out the sea, its scent and all the primal instinct, power and need that is part of it. This poem was the result --

The Bleach field

When you caught me on the beach
the moon's lamp burning low,
I was all seal. My blue flesh tangled
in a net with seaweed and mussel shells.

When you brought me to the house
and laid me near the hearth to warm,
I shed my skin and became
a woman formed pale as quartz; my hair firelight
loosened in the dusk.

You looked at me, my fear sharp enough
to scratch the mirror's glass but still
your hands seized my fur and hung it near
some knit clothing and iron tools. From the pines,

loose dirt blew under the door
and scattered along its sill
like black powder. When morning came

shorebirds flew in the distance
and I wept. You carried my pelt
to a field where farm women had spread
damp wool to dry and raw linen
to lighten in the sun. A young man

wanting to keep his wife, you stretched
my fur over rock, bidding the light
to bleach the sea. Its strong smell
and instinct to wander back.

This may be my favorite selchie poem ever, Wendy.

And the last two lines:
"Its strong smell
and instinct to wander back."

are brilliant. Sums up every selchie story I have ever read, ever written.

You have also introduced me to the "bleach field" and I can see enormous power in that concept. Must ponder.

Plus the "black powder"reminded me not just of the easy image of dirt, but of black powder muskets, for surely what is the right period of weapon for the time of this poem.

Thanks, thanks, and thanks again,


PS Please send the poem to Gobling Market or Asimov's or. . ..


Hi Jane

I can't tell you how much your wonderful and encouraging commentary means to me!!!!!!!I am really so touched and humbled by it. As this poem is also one of my favorites because it went through struggle and revision to get there. Plus, I love the selchie or selkie story, the myth and bittersweet concept of her. And yes I will definitely send it out to one of the magazines you have mentioned. I would like to see this one published. Again, Thank many times over for your support and interest in my work, it really means so much to me!

"Bleachfield" drew me right in because I have also been interested in the loom, weaving cloth and history of it - as well as gathering pigments to make dye, preparing the cloth for the process and now this idea of laying it out in the field, I guess to cure in a way. But your're right it does have diverse possibilities and if there is a poem waiting in your corner Jane, to be written using it, I know it will be terrific!

Again Thank you!!
Take care and good luck with your mermaid book. I know it will be brilliant!


Take care
Love Wendy

P.S. and good luck with that wonderful book you have started, "How To Spot A Mermaid". I think that is a brilliant and enchanting idea. I know Faerie Magazine, from info on their websiste, is featuring "mermaids" as their Summer theme. I think the magazine would be so enhanced if they interviewed you about this up-coming project but then again you probably might to keep this under raps until it is finished and ready for publication. Anyway, I look forward to

to continue my interrupted thought due to my temperamental browser that stalled,

Anyway I look forward to hearing more about the progress of your book and when it's ready for publication.

my best

It's a picture book--and still in the settling stage. Haven't sent it to my agent because it's not ready. But perhaps you should consider sending Bleach Field to the mermaid magazine. They occasionally do poetry (I know because they did one or two of mine a few years ago.


Thanks so much Jane
for the suggestion. I appreciate it and will look into it!

Take care,
my best

Very nice article on sentence structure, I was wondering If your viewers would like to have a look at this video on the same topic. Here it's. I hope this will go along with this amazing article. . Once again thanks for this amazing article.

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