Last summer I taught myself to score baseball. Scoring entails keeping track of every pitch and every swing of the bat, every play and every out, creating a written record of the game as I’ve observed it. From this, I’ve learned that game-saving heroics are deceiving. Yes, the homerun is incredible, as are the triple play and the suicide squeeze, but these happen so rarely that to judge a game (that is, the contest at hand) by them is to misrepresent the Game (that is, Baseball). Yet another pitch. Yet another strike. Yet another base hit. Such plays aren’t often praised, but they compose a season and a career. The day-in and day-out, the uneventful, the trivial –– the “fundamentals” as the players and coaches say –– this is what fills my scorebook.
The same summer I began scorekeeping I also began keeping a commonplace book. Mine is a Moleskine in which I copy passages from writers whose prose I find instructive, compelling, whose syntax is a model for my own. I cull sentences from the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Verlyn Klinkenborg, Philip Hoare, Annie Dillard, William Coles. I gather their words into my commonplace book and spend time inside their sentences, inhabiting their syntax.
Each time I reach for my commonplace book, I think about my scorekeeping. Though the scorebook does occasionally record the spectacular, for the most part its method is antithetical to the commonplace book. One chronicles the monotonous; the other collects the exceptional.
I find myself gathering sentences by the same criteria Stanley Fish uses in How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. We’re both “always on the lookout for sentences that take your breath away, that make you say, ‘Isn’t that something’ or ‘What a sentence!’” Fish likens such sentences to the highlight reel: “you know, the five greatest dunks, or the ten greatest catches, or the fifteen greatest touchdown runbacks.” As an example, Fish turns to John Updike on Ted Williams’s homerun in his final at-bat in Fenway Park: “It was in the books while it was still in the sky.” In Fish’s reading, Updike “confers mythical status on the moment before it is completed, before the ball actually goes out of the park” by teetering “in the books” and “in the sky” on either side of “while.”
“It was in the books while it was still in the sky” is in my own commonplace book, but now that I score baseball, I wonder about all the other sentences that neither Fish nor I pay attention to, the unavoidable tension between the sentences I copy into my commonplace book and the thousands upon thousands of sentences I’ve read that I don’t. This does not mean all those other sentences are strikeouts or passed balls or errors, but that not every sentence attempts to be (or even should be) a grand slam. Sometimes all a sentence needs to do is string together a few words with little fanfare –– sentences like these, taken from the same Updike piece chronicling Williams’s career:
The day was overcast, chill, and uninspirational.
The Boston team was the worst in twenty-seven seasons.
I arrived early.
The Orioles were hitting fungos on the field.
The dividing line came between the 1956 and the 1957 seasons.
Every true story has an anticlimax.
How am I –– scorekeeper and sentence collector –– to read these sentences? They do not dazzle; they accomplish no syntactic feats. Can they, too, be sentences that take my breath away, sentences that make me exclaim, “Isn’t that something” or “What a sentence!”?
Here’s “It was in the books while it was still in the sky” within its original paragraph:
Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowed grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.
With the judiciously placed “after his unsettling wait,” the first sentence forces readers, like the crowd at Fenway and like Williams, to wait for Fisher to deliver his pitch. There’s the efficient rhythm of “Fisher threw a third time, Williams swung again, and there it was.” The third sentence –– “The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure” –– is itself both long and smooth and quick as well as exposed, naked, just like Williams’s swing-and-a-miss. “The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field” piles on prepositional phrases, one atop another, to mimic the ball’s upward flight. Then there’s Updike’s semicolon in the final sentence, connecting the running Brandt to the ball’s descent, the crowd watching the two converge on the field and the reader seeing the same grammatically in the sentence.
But what about “He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed”? Understated, plain as it is, it is a sentence I could have written. I notice it only because of my scorekeeping, because I now watch for the mundane.
Such sentences do not announce themselves. They don’t find their way into commonplace books. And yet, these are the sentences that do the heavy lifting of writing, the sentences that compose a writer’s life. They provide the ordinary language against which the extra-ordinary resonates.
It is easy to look past sentences like “The batting cage was trundled away” in favor of sentences like “It was in the books while it was still in the sky,” sentences that are, as Fish says, “performances of a certain skill at the highest level.” And it is easy, too, to say “It was in the books while it was still in the sky” is a good sentence. It is much harder to say the same about “He glanced up at the press rows suspended above home plate.” Even harder to say why “The Sox won, 5-4” is a good sentence without resorting to clichés about clarity. And hardest of all: cultivating ways of reading and writing that value the work of ordinary language, that bring the scorebook to bear upon the commonplace book.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.