Message in a bottle: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! I’m a writer, adrift in a sea of words, with no wind to fill my sails. I’m still afloat but fast running out of fresh water. Perishing in this blue desert of words…

Ever felt this way?  Stranded, stuck, blocked, hard aground, adrift, shipwrecked far from shore?

As navigators we occasionally lose our way and get stranded on our crossings. Water water everywhere — so why am I dying of thirst? The wind that normally fills our sails and drives our fingers across the keyboard has disappeared. When this happens we tend to do one of two things: We give up writing (for a day, a month, forever) or we get out the oars and paddle, desperate to be moving again.  Paddling itself, can be a joy. We may not cover miles but we’re moving under our own power.

I’ve tried many tricks for overcoming writer’s block, with varying degrees of success. One exercise that I particularly find useful is building a powerful sentence — a single, broad-shouldered purposeful sentence.

Start by writing a sentence, any sentence.  The cat sat. The cat sat on a mat.

Now make it particular, not general. The old tomcat lay in the sun. The old, one-eared tomcat hunkered on the Persian rug.

Begin to experiment with your sentence, adding nouns, verbs, conjunctions, clauses, adjectives, to best describe a feeling or an image. Play with that image, feel free to recreate it.  The old feline nestled herself into the leaves and faced the warm morning sun, blinking her one eye, crusted with matter, kneading her claws and wrapping her once-glorious tail tight around her, like a stole, and in the way of cats, thought of nothing but was entirely aware, alive, and waiting.

Forget about correct punctuation (for now) and build it out. Once you’ve freighted the sentence in Faulkner-like abundance, pare it down again, to the barest essentials.  The one-eyed cat blinked, waiting.   The old cat watched and waited. The cat blinked. 

The only rules are, stay within the confines of a single sentence.

Now throw it away — this was just an exercise.  Don’t try to write anything else today. You have whistled up a wind, so get ready to raise sail tomorrow. A sentence is all-powerful.

Sometimes we try to hurry our crossings; we’re too intent on landfall. Slow down and delight in the words that lap against the hull. Sentences are the building blocks of literature, the carrier of images and ideas. Writing one true sentence can keep you afloat.  One sentence can save your life.

Keep paddling.


Building Great Sentences:How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) by Brooks Landon. ISBN-10: 0452298601

Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte.  ISBN-10: 0961392185