Sunday, September 17, 2006

My One-Sentence (Third-Person) Autobiography

I once taught a writing course based on a rather bizarre little textbook that required students to learn some extremely (and unnecessarily) technical grammatical terms so they could avoid writing sentences like this one:

It is the recommendation of the committee that the establishment of new guidelines for the protection and preservation of systems of accountability and governance be undertaken on behalf of the participants of the program for the purpose of providing guidance and direction to all service users and eligible recipients.

Of course, no one can question the value of preventing such sentences from being written, and if any of my students actually had a writing style like this one, I’m sure they would have found it very helpful to learn how to keep subject and verb close together and eliminate unnecessary jargon so that they could replace the above sentence with this one: We recommend that you train your employees to meet their clients’ needs more effectively.

In the latter half of the course, having stripped down the students’ writing to the bare minimum, the textbook focused on creative ways to build greater sentence variety using things like resumptive modifiers. To create a resumptive modifier, you do the following: (a) make a statement; (b) follow it with a noun that sums up the statement; and (c) follow that with a subordinate clause beginning with who, that, or which. Or maybe that’s a summative modifier. I don’t remember now.

Anyway, one of the assignments for that course was for students to submit a 500-word autobiographical sketch in which their lives were summed up in a single sentence full of resumptive and summative modifiers. I stole the idea from Carol Shields, actually, who uses the device very cleverly in her novel, Swann.

Since the day I realized that the average sentence on my blog is over 17 words long, I’ve been trying, with little success, to develop a more accessible writing style. So in the spirit of throwing in the towel, here is my one-sentence, 500-word autobiography:

Ms. Bubandpie was born to Protestant parents at a Catholic hospital in London, Ontario nine months to the day after the marriage of her father, Spencer, a lapsed Anglican, to Janet, a lapsed member of the United Church of Canada (a surprisingly bland denomination that combines, and reduces to the lowest common denominator, the fiery Calvinism of the Scots Presbyterians and the hymn-singing enthusiasm of the Dissenting Methodists) – the couple welcomed the arrival of this not-entirely-planned addition to the family with as much pleasure as surprise, for Janet, an idealistic woman who had entered the nursing profession from a desire to help people, had married Spencer, a reliable if unimaginative accountant, more from a desire to settle down and raise a family than from any recognition of undying passion, a pragmatic, if unromantic attitude that allowed them to create a stable and loving home even after the arrival of a second daughter three years later, a little girl whose manic hyperactivity seemed to emerge from a happiness that radiated from her too intensely to permit such mundane things as learning to read – a trait that made her very unlike her older sister, who from the age of two had insisted that her Dr. Seuss books accompany her to bed in her crib, and who graduated easily from those to the Bible stories she learned at Sunday School after her mother was born again at a Baptist church that met in the local school gymnasium, a conversion experience shared by Bubandpie (though not by her father), a girl whose shyness in social situations did not prevent her from enjoying the spotlight of the annual Christmas pageant, where her recitation of memory verses could scarcely be equalled – a performance which, unfortunately, did not boost her social confidence, for, as her teachers repeatedly complained on her report cards, she was a student who felt that one friend was enough for anyone; after moving to small town at the end of kindergarten, Bubandpie found that friend in a neighbouring seven-year-old who, despite occasional turbulence, remained her best friend even after Bubandpie discovered, at the age of fourteen, that she had fallen in love with a seventeen-year-old aspiring missionary whose red high-top Converse sneakers and British-band inspired eyeliner combined to make him irresistible, not only to Bubandpie but also to most other girls at his large Pentecostal Church, where enthusiastic worship and speaking in tongues were simply uncomfortable obstacles to the weekly worship of this dynamic and often aloof young man – a weekly training in rejection that led Bubandpie to be wildly elated when, upon her graduation from high school, she at last found herself the object of someone else’s affections: those of First Husband, a lapsed Roman Catholic who saw in her an irresistibly attractive opposite: disciplined where he was spontaneous, frugal where he was impulsive, bookish and dreamy where he was outgoing and athletic – a contrast that was, unfortunately, not perceived by Bubandpie, who romantically projected onto him all her own traits: thinking that he was creative, idealistic, and faithful, she married him a month after her graduation from university and discovered, in the five years that followed, that the traits he had admired in her – discipline and self-control – had now become to him unbearable fetters, and that the traits she had admired in him – creativity and faithfulness – had now morphed into the creative concealment of his unfaithfulness, a discovery that led to a devastating, though not acrimonious divorce, followed in short order by her remarriage to a Bible college graduate whose calm, rational demeanour was disrupted only by the startling intensity of his love for Bubandpie – a love that led him to read and report back on every book Bubandpie happened to mention, including Pride and Prejudice and Rilla of Ingleside (a sequel to Anne of Green Gables which had been the subject of her M.A. thesis), demonstrating a level of affection and commitment that could not help but win Bubandpie’s heart, so that she married him a few weeks prior to the defence of her Ph.D. thesis, a defence that began her career as an English instructor at her alma mater, where she enjoys to this day the opportunity to teach Children’s Literature, Victorian fiction, and Writing to classes whom she asks to write their own autobiographies in a single sentence of at least 500 words.

(This autobiography was written before the birth of my children; I could include them, but that would probably put me over the word limit and stretch even my ability to force everything I have to say into a single sentence.)

I'm not mean enough to turn this into a meme (or, worse, tag anyone with this horrific assignment), but if you want to try summing up your life in a single sentence in the comments, I won't hold you to a 500-word minimum...

47 comments:

sunshine scribe said...

I loved this. Really, really loved this. Think I might tackle it too - gotta love a 500 word sentence. Not sure I am as up to this formidable task as the great Bub&Pie but I always did do what the teacher asked ...

metro mama said...

Now take a deep breath!

This is great. I may tackle this one someday. Tomorrow I'm doing my favourite TV characters.

Pieces said...

Ohmigosh, that is exhausting! The pain, the pain! I want to pick up a red pen and edit it to within an inch of its life.

I was just thinking the other day that I would love to take a course from you--but this one would be just too hard.

Mary-LUE said...

While a delight to read, the mere thought of attempting the herculean task myself brings to mind certain cartoons where gadgets break down and springs go boing all over the place! This admission coming from the woman who ranks up there with you in word count in sentences with an average in the low teens, I believe, and who remembers the very post by Mom-101 where my comment revealing my readability numbers enticed you to click on my link to find my blog where you left your first comment for me--a day I will always remember fondly.

Mary-LUE said...

P.S. May I call you Dr. Bub and Pie?

Em said...

Wow - I just learnt a lot about you. I think I'll try and write my own...

bubandpie said...

Mary-LUE - Yeah, I was thinking fondly of that day myself. But I don't know about the Dr. Bub and Pie - it sounds like it would lend itself to bad jokes all too easily (doctor's orders, the doctor is in, blah blah blah). I think maybe lildb was the first one to call me Ms. B&P, and though I hadn't really thought about what MY blogging name should be, I liked that one a lot.

Pieces - Yeah - nobody should take that course: it was too hard in a really not worth it kind of way. There were some parts to it, though, when I strayed away from the curriculum, simply because it was a small class full of great writers who loved writing and loved to think about what made good writing work.

Lisa b said...

That is amazing.

nonlineargirl said...

That is a fabulous sentence.

Lisa b said...

PS I totally need to take one of your classes.

julia said...

You need a semi-colon between passion and a pragmatic in the bit about your parents. *ducks*

Other than that, good lord, woman! That was something else.

Karianna said...

Huh. I should try this.

Interesting exercise!

bubandpie said...

Julia challenges me to a grammar fight! Okay, draw your weapons - I defend the comma on the grounds that it is followed by a summative modifier: a noun followed by an adjective clause that could not stand alone as a sentence. Or, in other words, the word "that" means the comma is okay. (Your go!)

sunshine scribe said...

Okay. I lied. There is no way I can do this. Much harder than it looks. Okay it looks hard ... but I am cocky. You rock my friend...bowing in your presence :)

Em said...

Okay, I'm not so mean as to put it in your comments section - but I've tried (and gramatically speaking I've failed) to do a 500 word sentence on my life (it's on my blog).

Mary-LUE said...

I understand where you are coming from with the doctor reference. Maybe I'll just refer to you as Professor Bub & Pie in my mind! I could use a grammar refresher course. Maybe an online blog class? (Kidding!)

molly said...

This was the best! I wouldn't ever, ever attempt to think of trying this, your poor students...

Anonymous said...

OK- I have been doing an expercise called "Unphotographable"-- it is something along these lines-- on my blog at http://ethiopia.adoptionblogs.com/

The idea is to make a word picture of a moment in time, and the looong sentence kind of adds to the immediacy of it.

Here is one example:Babies In A Bed Only 300 words, and maybe not as complex sentence structure as you used. But it has been fun.
Mary (http://owlhaven.wordpress.com)

bubandpie said...

Mary/Owlhaven - Do you know how humbling it is for me to know you? If anybody else stops by these comments here today DO click over to Babies in a Bed, though after you read it you may not ever be the same.

Beck said...

Ha! That's GREAT! In a long sentence sort of way... but hey! I'm a United Churchgoer and as bland as a white bread and mayo sandwich. (I'll have to remember that part for my long, long sentence bio...)

mad_hatter said...

This is so fabulous that I couldn't help but play along: http://madhattermommy.blogspot.com/2006/09/because-i-cant-resist.html

BTW, you are the 2nd blogger I have discovered in just over a month with whom I have quite a bit in common (as my bio will make quite clear). Freaky.

crunchy carpets said...

"(a surprisingly bland denomination that combines, and reduces to the lowest common denominator, the fiery Calvinism of the Scots Presbyterians and the hymn-singing enthusiasm of the Dissenting Methodists)"

So true...maybe why my connection with any religion fell away with my immigration to Canada.

The Church just wasn't 'Dour' enough!
(I am scot!)

And the bio... I will have to go back to the one I did for my blog...I think it is almost a 500 word sentence.....loong and boring anyway!!!!

Aliki2006 said...

Whew! My sentences are often too long as well--but I always defend the art of the too-long sentence.

Loved to read more about you...

Ali said...

oh my god. this was awesome.
not sure i have the brain power.
maybe once my second cup of coffee kicks in..

you're awesome :)

Mayberry said...

Now that is amazing, especially how it ties up at the end, and how it prompted more amazingness, including the extremely moving Babies in a Bed which brought me to tears on this Monday morning.

Beanie Baby said...

hahahahahahahaha

Ah--long-winded bloggers unite!

Seriously, you don't need to worry about accessibility. Your style is lovely. Don't mess with it, is my advice.

Jaelithe said...

Okay, you know I have to try this! I don't know when I will get a moment without the kid on my lap to try it, but I must try it . . .

something blue said...

I loved that you shared so much in one sentence. I think you may have increased the average sentence on your blog to way over 17 words long with this post.

Jennifer said...

I am nowhere near competent enough with a comma or semicolon to even attempt such a feat -- but that is very impressive!

edj said...

that was awesome! Too fun! YGG!

Nancy said...

Whoa. I read aloud in my head and I had to stop several times for virtual breath. But that was an amazing sentence and autobiography. I bow to thee and your mastery of storytelling.

TrudyJ said...

Truly amazing. Though with my innate skill for picking one useful piece of information out of an endless sentence, my main reaction was, "She did her thesis on Rilla of Ingleside?? How cool is THAT??!?!?"

Mouse said...

I think I may have to tackle this too, though it will take me a while to craft such a sentence. It would be interesting to take the readability stats both before and after such a post! I think the only thing keeping my average sentence length down is my frequent use of emphatic fragments. And bullets.

Kristen said...

I saw Em do this and I knew I had to come check out your original - that was awesome. Great exercise for your students, too!

Mrs. Chicky said...

Wow. I mean, really, wow. I feel like I know so much about you and yet my head is still spinning.

Why do I feel like I need to go back to school now?

Lady M said...

I write too many fragments to manage a 500 word sentence. I'm impressed that you can do it and be entertaining at the same time!

cinnamon gurl said...

Wow. What a great challenge! I had to try it and have posted my attempt. Thanks!

penelopeto said...

Awesome! Funny and informative.

I'm going for it. Being succinct is really not my strong point, so I feel I am already out of the gate on this one...

Emily said...

I wouldn't know a grammar rule from an ass pimple, but I did enjoy your grammar fight with Julia. I would *LOVE* to go to an intensive and cruel Grammar Camp for adults. It is a fantasy of mine. I do check out grammar sites from time to time and use the intertet to find answers to some of my basic questions, but your beadth of knowledge is way, way beyond my comprehention. I'm envious.

bubandpie said...

Emily - I am a grammar geek, and I've figured out how to gather a really large crowd in the photocopy room of the English department: come up with a knotty problem relating to parts of speech (a word that may be an adverb but doesn't seem to be modifying anything, or possibly a relative pronoun, let's say) and watch the sparks fly!

I can recommend the Bedford Handbook if you want to do a teach-yourself-grammar home study. That's how I learned it. Of course, I had the right motivation - I had to actually teach this stuff to others, instead of just going on instinct like I'd always done before. Not that you need it for your writing skills - just so you can blast somebody every once in awhile with words like "participial phrase."

Merry Mama said...

Original and beautiful (if not grammatically appealing). I could relate to many things...and definitely could only dream to be married to such a man who would share my literary tastes (which are reflected in yours almost precisely enough for me to wonder whether we are, in fact, long lost twin sisters. Except that you are much more beautiful and talented.)

AMEN

Binkytown said...

Awesome. I am intimidated. Maybe one day when I have like a week to revise, revise, revise. Loved it!

PS- You should know that Mayberry actually coined the "B&P" moniker, I used it after she did, but it totally works. We all know you.

Mouse said...

Oh, and I'm always game to join in on grammar geekiness. This is something my wife and I share. At work, a colleague and I handled all of our department's grammar questions, and I got into a long email conversation with an English teacher about the use of the colon.

lildb said...

that's brilliant. you're freaky, man.

also, Rilla of Ingleside lives in my head. so now, even though I already knew that you are practically synonymous with lady Montgomery, I will never be able to separate you from her in my thoughts.

funny.

DaniGirl said...

Hey, I was born in London, moved in with hubby #1 one week after graduating high school and lived happily ever after with hubby #2 and our babies.

Cool!

Why haven't I been reading your blog before now??

Anonymous said...

WOW! Way to go, Professor!

I love your style just as it is! Don't change a thing.

You just reminded me of a bizarre little textbook called Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace by Joseph M. Williams. It was used in a class I took a few years back. It kicked my ass at the time, but I think my writing was better. Maybe I'll try to reread it.

bubandpie said...

Katrinka - Yep, that's the one! I guess once you've been through that text you can recognize Williams' M.O. anywhere.