Writing while holding one’s breath

Issa Dioume has treated us to another exercise in style training from Ursula K. Le Guin. This one is to write a half page to a page of unbroken prose, one long sentence. Issa wrote 350 words. I managed 367 before I decided I really needed that full stop.

I can see the point of this exercise, and it’s a subtle one. It puts me in mind of what we were told in junior school about writing stories—no ‘and then’s. It doesn’t sound good and it’s lazy. In this exercise we purposely write uninterrupted prose, and we could do it by sticking ‘and then’ at every point where we would normally have a full stop, which rather defeats the object of the exercise.

I think the idea is to write a long chunk without the reader being aware that there hasn’t been a full stop for a while. To be able to do that is the mark of a skillful writer. If the reader lost the thread about ten lines back, it hasn’t worked. This is what I produced, and I admit, it’s not great literature and I won’t be going back to polish it up.


Slowly the tide creeps up the shore, the froth of foam dying higher and higher with each wave, the sucking backwash repeatedly repulsed by the next incoming roller that starts out in the depths, deep and dark, a swell like the movement of great arms or a massive chest heaving with the force of the ocean, to vanquish the shore and tear at the cliff face behind until the friable stone crumbles beneath the battering and slips back into the water, to be ground by the currents and the undersea pebbles into grains of sand again, while I wait, entranced and bound—entranced by the sight of the vastness of an element I had no knowledge of before I was captured and brought here, and bound, literally, to a wooden stake driven deep into the sand below the high water mark, to wait as the water laps my toes until it inevitably creeps higher and higher, to fill my mouth with the sea so that I cannot even scream for help, although I doubt that anyone would come at my call, not now that I have been made the scapegoat of the miserable savages of this godforsaken hole of a village, the sacrificial appeaser to whom each has given his sins to bear: tatty bits of cloth, beads, shells, dried flowers tied with straw for string; so I am engarlanded like an ox at the spring sacrifice of the city from where I come, burdened with all their fears and their nasty crimes, for the great sea beast that terrorises their existences to wash away, to purify the foul souls of these half-witted pagans with the death of their scapegoat, that in this case happens to be me, the unfortunate who thought to avoid their miserable rat’s nest of a village by taking the track that carries sensible folk in a wide arc away from the sea and through the forest, but where the wily devils, crafty as a bag of weasels, had dug a pit trap and covered it carefully with green branches, to catch this unwary traveller for their iniquitous ends, which as the waves lap ever higher up my chest, I feel creeping closer and closer.

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Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

31 thoughts on “Writing while holding one’s breath”

  1. Well done! An idea for a prompt? One sentence fiction, no less than 250 words, no full stop! 😉

  2. Wow. I’m out of breath! Ha ha. I actually liked the writing, Jane, but I surely wanted some stops in there to breathe and gain control of the imagery. A fascinating exercise. I saw Issa’s post about the Leguin exercises and considered picking up the book. I might just do that now.

    1. I’m sure a really good writer could do it so you wouldn’t feel out of breath, but I suppose that’s why we attempt it in the first place—to get better at it.

      1. As a piece of prose, it would never get past an editor. Full stops are there for a purpose. As an exercise, it’s a good one for keeping us focused on the sense of a phrase and hanging onto it, even when it gets to an excessive length!

  3. “the idea is to write a long chunk without the reader being aware that there hasn’t been a full stop for a while. ” That is so true – writing such a flow the reader gets lost in the story. G
    (Quite an exercise – book might be worth a look, thanks)

  4. You’ve done an amazing job… I used parentheses… semi-colon, colons… all the tricks in the game… out of desperation. But what you did is smart! It works well for description of nature… one need only use commas… and hyphens, interesting… 🙂 I feel like mine is definitely ramblish in comparison. :/

    1. I think that we maybe have a tendency to overthink and get entangled in complicated punctuation. When you have parentheses within a clause that is already a sub-sub clause, it gets really difficult to follow the plot. I’m glad you found it comprehensible.

      1. They all make sense in context, it just makes it difficult to follow as the point of a parenthesis is to add something that is incidental to the narrative.

  5. It could easily be turned into a narrative poem–line breaks being a kind of punctuation. But it does cause a holding of breath to read it…(K)

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