The Case for Single-Sentence Prose in the Age of Insecurity
July 23, 2020 § 19 Comments
By Jason Thayer
I was having trouble focusing. Every story idea, every essay concept seemed unwieldy, unmanageable in the hellscape of Spring 2020. My mind flitted from anxiety to new anxiety as I obsessively checked the infection rates, monitored the new restrictions, raged against the maskless. I sat down at my computer every afternoon and tried to write something new and failed. I tried to revise my memoir manuscript, but couldn’t keep track of the arc, couldn’t assess whether the pacing in the first chapter was too fast or whether my hook was punchy enough to attract an agent.
The doorbell rang. It was our neighbor, a woman with short gray hair who wore pedal pushers like my mother. She was hugging a cardboard box.
“We have this food I won’t eat,” she said, then took a breath. Exhaled. “I don’t know if you know yet, but my husband died last week.”
I did not know this. I stood on the front porch with her for a few moments, fumbling for condolences, finally taking the box of food.
I told my partner about the interaction, the way our neighbor had used the plural, we, and then the singular, I. We unpacked the saltines, the canned chicken breast, the diet 7-Up. Trips to the grocery store were daunting and so, even though these items didn’t top our shopping list, we made our way through the gifted food.
In the morning while I washed dishes, I’d see our neighbor walk past the window and my mind would swim toward her sadness. Grief is its own isolation, and knowing that she was bearing hers alone, in lockdown, seemed an unprecedented cruelty. My father died when I was a child, and with a loss like this, comes a special communion with the bereaved; I could not stop thinking about my neighbor. Wondering what she made for dinner, and how long the leftovers lasted. Whether she was eating much at all. Whether there were days she didn’t speak to anyone except the cat that skulked across her lawn chasing squirrels. At night, I would look across our yards, the ill-defined property line, and see her reading in her living room, a single light on in the big dark house. In the morning, I would see her walk past my window as I washed dishes, and if I let my mind linger too long on her sadness, my eyes would well.
I sat down to write about this, but again, the task of molding this small interaction into a traditional essay seemed daunting. I did not have the attention span to research the impact of grief on bereaved spouses, or cull my memory for a poignant anecdote that would characterize our deceased neighbor, bringing to light what was lost. Even a flash piece was more than I could commit to, as the daily news grew more and more grim, the world around us more chaotic and unstable.
But what about a single sentence? Could I write a single sentence about my neighbor’s private grief and its vicarious impact? Yes, I could. I could work within these parameters. I could commit to this.
The single-sentence format is well-suited for this new world where our attentions stray, where our brains must keep tabs on virus rates, on which family members aren’t wearing masks, on systemic racism, on cops murdering unarmed Black and brown people.
This isn’t to suggest the single-sentence form is any easier to write. For example, I had wanted to write this blog entry in a single sentence, but couldn’t manage to fit everything I wanted to say. The limitations of a single sentence challenge the writer to twist syntax, bend structure to their will, or else winnow narrative down to the bones.
But with these restrictions also comes the opportunity for innovation. Experiments that might not be sustainable in longer work are manageable, even revelatory in brief formats. Could I read a whole novel where the protagonist was a slice of pizza? No. But a single sentence? Definitely.
Single-sentence stories can be told in a single breath, like Hemingway’s famous, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But they can also take the form of Diane Seuss’ tour d’force, “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” published in Brevity. Here, content dictates form. The long-winded, tangent-laden single sentence mimics the breathless adrenaline of the speaker in that moment, trying to make sense of what she has just done, excising the two drug dealers from her son’s apartment. This form wouldn’t work for a plodding story without that charged immediacy.
For my purposes, a modest single sentence was ideal for distilling a small interaction that lingered with me:
I did not know our neighbor died until his wife knocked to offer a box of food she wouldn’t eat: pancake mix, diet 7-up, Pepperidge Farm white bread her husband had stomached during a 3-month-long losing-battle to cancer, a box I took gratefully, offering condolences—no hugs, because the virus was already spreading, and because I didn’t know these neighbors well enough to provide this comfort, in fact, had no idea that the jolly guy I’d bantered with under the black walnut tree we shared, had cancer—and now I try not to watch her, absorb her loneliness, take it as my own, the widow social distancing in that big house, leaving briefly for daily walks past our kitchen window as I wash dishes, griddle my partner a breakfast of pancakes.
I had seen single sentences published in lit mags before, but I’d never heard of a journal that dealt exclusively in single-sentence content. Well, I thought. That’s an idea. That’s a magazine for this new age of insecurity.
This July, I launched Complete Sentence, an online magazine of single-sentence prose. Weekly, we publish single-sentence essays, stories, reviews, and hot takes. If you are having trouble focusing, consider this challenge: write a single sentence. Just one. And then send it our way.
For submission guidelines to Complete Sentence, click here.
Jason Thayer is the Editor-in-Chief of Complete Sentence. His work has been published in The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, Hobart, and Essay Daily among others. Find more info at jasonthayer.com and on twitter @thejasonthayer.