The last time I posted One Great Sentence, it was with thoughts about how context informs and layers the meaning of a single line. Only when I opened that post two weeks later, did I remember that it came from a news story about migrants, or immigrants, or refugees, or explorers – whatever term we use to describe the people who wander, in whatever way, in search of finding, or creating, home.
This new sentence, by the late novelist Brian Doyle, could not be farther removed from a news story. It comes late in “The Plover,” a story as deeply fantastical as it is deeply researched, and grounded almost entirely in emotions. Indeed, most of the story doesn’t even happen on the ground, but on the ocean, and specifically on the Pacific Ocean, known as Pacifica in the book. I’m not a big fan of being on the ocean – puked my way to and from Antarctica on a Soviet science ship on an exotic reporting trip once, with little but M&Ms keeping me sane. So I waded into “The Plover” with trepidation, only to be caught in an undertow of wonder. The wonder came from the story itself, but also from the sentences that shaped that story. Some sentences went on for a page or more, defying the laws of grammatical gravity while pulling me further and further into their depths. Some caught me up short by the change of pace and their simple audacity:
“How could you have a new country without excellent dreamers?”
That question comes from the tourism minister of a remote island who envisions a new and peaceful nation – Pacifica – made of all the islands and fishes and birds and plants and people who inhabit the Pacific Ocean. He is wacky enough to be cast out by those threatened by his vision. He is faithful enough to that vision to be embraced by those who begin to glimpse the edges of its wonder. He dares to dream, and has the courage to dare others to do the same. He is, as the sentence says, an “excellent dreamer.”
It’s possible that sentence had more resonance given the backdrop of current news. Maybe my head is so stuffed with headlines and images and rhetoric about migrants, immigrants, refugees – whatever term we use to describe them – that I can’t escape its shadows.
But I read it as more than about a country defined by politics and geography, and rather as a dare to imagine the countries I, and we, could create in our personal, professional, spiritual, physical lives if we dared to be excellent dreamers. And to realize how stuck we get in the countries of here and now.
Two practical craft notes from this sentence:
- It is a dramatic change of pace from the larger rhythm of “The Plover.” As a result it catches my attention. Pacing your sentences is a powerful tool in writing. Read your work aloud to hear where you lull the reader along and where you stop them short – not in a way that makes them stumble, but in a way that wakes them to your point.
- We could do an entire post on adjectives – which describe and which merely decorate. “New” to define country, and “excellent” to define dreamers aren’t very impressive descriptors on their own. But in context they really do inform, layer and change the meaning of the overall sentence.
One other note: If you’ve never heard of Brian Doyle, you are likely not alone, even though he has a heavy shelf of books to his credit. If you are interested, and need a place to start, I recommend “Mink River.” He was perhaps best known as an unashamed “Catholic writer,” whatever that means. I never read any preaching or dogma in his work, but always an exploration of the murky worlds of morality and, for lack of a better word, soul. He was a three-time winner of the Pushcart Prizes, and included seven times in The Best American Essays. He was also a journalist, which may explain the precision of his research and language even in the most fantastical of his tales. If you want to submerge into the names of fish, birds, boat parts, smells, sounds – he’s your guy. He was the longtime editor of Portland Magazine, the award-winning alumni magazine at the University of Portland, a Catholic liberal arts college founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross. He died in May 2017 of what he called a “big honkin’ brain tumor.” He was 60.