One Sentence at a Time

When I taught English, my students would come to me for help on their essays. More accurately they were seeking better grades.

They would stand by my desk or I’d stand by theirs and they would be worried. Or annoyed. Or both. “Read this out loud,” I would tell them. “This sentence here.”

“But I want my whole essay to improve.”

“I understand,” I’d say. “But first we need to take this one sentence at a time.”

Oh, the sighs! The eye rolls! The groans! This seemed like a lot of work.

Because it was.

Still, I asked them to listen while they read to me.

Sometimes their words fell like stones, the diction overwrought or imprecise. Other times the parts of their sentences were out of place. Unclear modification. Passive voice. Agreement issues with subjects and verbs or pronouns.

The weaknesses varied; what these kids had in common, however, was a sense of helplessness. They’d look at me and shrug.

“I know it sucks.” (They were right.)

“But I don’t know how else to say it. There IS no other way.” (They were wrong.)

These students had given away their power. They surrendered control insisting that once they had written something, that was THE END. Done and done. Forever.

This reaction was due in part to natural human laziness. I’d given them an assignment and they had completed it. Why would they rewrite a sentence or a paragraph or (perish the thought) an entire essay? They didn’t want to. I get that. I do.

But the larger issue, I believed then and still believe, was their false assumption that there was no other way to say it.

They felt trapped in a cage of their own words while, behind them, the door was open.

So we’d listen again to one single awkward sentence, and I’d ask them to explain to me in casual language what they meant.

Keep it simple. Uncomplicated. Just tell me what you’re trying to say.

My goal was to help them unravel the meaning behind their words so they might string them together more effectively.

“You’re in charge,” I would repeat. “Individual words have no power. You pick each one and stick them where you think they should belong. Then, if the sentence doesn’t work, pull the words apart and try again.”

In theory being told YOU ARE IN CONTROL should be empowering; instead, these students were frustrated. They didn’t want to think more (or in some cases less).

The same holds true in life: We throw up our hands and say, “It is what it is. I can’t do anything about it.”

We remain in cages of our own making.

(This is Bella. She walked into our puppy’s pen on her own and stayed there with the door wide open.)

Stuck in ruts, mired down by mud, we make irrational, destructive choices. Convinced there’s no other option, we let ourselves off the hook.

We say The floundering sentence has been written. I am helpless when it sinks instead of I wrote that floundering sentence. What can I change to make it float?

Of course some things (terrible things) are beyond our control.

A grim diagnosis. Job loss. Betrayal. Abandonment. The death of a loved one. This is not what I’m talking about.

I’m targeting issues we can fix if we do the hard work. One sentence at a time.

(Side note: Perfection is not the goal; sometimes a sentence ends in a preposition. I never gave anyone a bad grade over a preposition.)

What I’m suggesting is this:

Consider a challenge in your life, a cage that tempts you to stay put. Go ahead. Close your eyes. Think.

I know it sucks but

Be gentle with yourself. Remember you’re not lazy. (Okay, maybe you are.) But you are also tired. Or brainwashed.

There is no other way, you think.

Now turn around.

Behind you is an open door.

What are your true intentions? What story do you wish to tell?

Unravel one sentence at a time, and you might improve the entire essay.

(If you need help editing your life, ask for it. There are teachers everywhere who want you to succeed.)

Erase. Rewrite. Delete. Repeat.

You’re in charge. You always were.

Reclaim your sentences until they sing your song.


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25 thoughts on “One Sentence at a Time

  1. It’s funny — my issue is almost the polar opposite as what you’re describing. I get so caught up in perfecting the sentence, that I forget to tell the whole narrative. I stop as soon as I start writing, knowing that I could word this, or that, in a better fashion. I think the trick might be to turn off the monitor, type as I might type, until I’ve put everything in my head to words, and then to go back & rework it (and pray that my fingers didn’t end up over a row, or something, on the keyboard, and therefore, you know, I end up typing gibberish).

    • Julie Gardner

      I’ve read enough of your words to know they’re not gibberish. (Or perhaps I see the finished product after the gibberish has been fixed?) Either way, your openness, honesty, and authenticity always shines.
      I’m guessing that’s how you live, too. Not just how you write.

  2. Diane

    Wow, twice in one day you have given the advice to “be gentle,” once to me and once to everyone. I will heed those words today and every day. Your writing, as always, is heartfelt and strong. Love you!

    • Julie Gardner

      Not everyone else punishes her knees like you do, Di!
      I want you LITERALLY to be gentle with yourself.
      (Even though I suspect you won’t be.)
      I love you and am so grateful for your steadfast support.

  3. Mom

    You write beautifully and you think beautifully. Thank you for sharing both of those gifts. People are listening!

    • Julie Gardner

      Awwww. Thanks, Mom.
      I owe you a lot and I love you even more!

  4. And I’m all undone at noon on a Tuesday. Thanks 🙂

    • Julie Gardner

      I’m so glad we’re on this journey together, Cam, holding each other’s hands, helping to make beautiful music.

  5. NannyK

    Reclaim your sentences until they sing your song. THIS… the type of music I really should be focusing ON….. (see what I did there?) You are nice! I would TOTALLY give a bad grade for that. HA! Love you Sis!! And I love this post. And tell Bella that Auntie Nancy will come sit in the cage with her on Saturday 🙂

    • Julie Gardner

      Is it Saturday yet?
      How about now?

      (Bella is impatient. Also hungry.)

      • NannyK

        I would like to chime in and ask Di to be gentle on her knees, too! ❤️

        • NannyK

          Oops. I meant to reply to YOUR reply to Di!

          But while I’m here, I would like to request there be champagne in the cage for me. And string cheese for Bella…and me ☺️

          • Julie Gardner

            We *might* have champagne and string cheese here.
            And by *might* I mean *we definitely have champagne and string cheese here.*
            And dogs.
            We have a few dogs.
            Have I mentioned the dogs before?

        • Diane

          Thanks Nancy, I’ll do my best! Thanks for caring!

  6. Hi Julie, I just discovered you from your post at the HerStories community. I loved reading this. Your writing is crisp and the whole blog so fresh. I’ll be back for sure! I enjoyed your funny go between first and third person on your About page, too:)

    • Julie Gardner

      Thanks so much, Julie! Happy to connect with you here and over at your place.
      And Twitter. And the HerStories Project.
      Who KNEW we had so much in common?
      (Besides the best name, of course.)

  7. I think of all the people I met as I began blogging, how many have drifted out of my life.

    I’m grateful you are here, steady, and inspiring, and reassuring.

    A solid undercurrent as the river flows.

    Thank you.

    • Julie Gardner

      From my first days blogging, you have been an inspiration.
      Your generosity of spirit, your willingness to share so much of yourself.

      Thank YOU for being that to me.
      I’ve written relatively few posts compared to your vast archives but with each one, I try to give the best of myself.
      That’s what you do.

  8. I love this – and I’m dealing with homeschooling two teenagers, who often give me the same answers. I think part of it is helplessness, part of it is just not caring. For them, it’s not a priority in their life, because YouTube is much easier…
    In writing and in life, you have a choice – whether you care enough and have the grit to push through is another issue altogether.

    • Julie Gardner

      Grit and care.
      Those are hard to come by.
      I’m guessing your teenagers have both.
      They have you.

  9. I need to do a lot, a lot, a lot of this: Erase. Rewrite. Delete. Repeat.

    In my writing. In my life. Because you are right (dammit), I am in a cage of my own making. I think it’s time I look behind me for that door.

    (Thanks for being such a great teacher.)

  10. I LOVE your writing. And your wisdom. And you my friend. I feel fortunate that our paths have crossed.

  11. So true and so inspiring! I love this idea of editing our lives when we can if we want to find and finding the right teachers (guides) to help us. This reminds me how I used to have this one friend who would bring up every thing I ever had enjoyed at one time any time I liked something new. So, if I got considered majoring in psych, she’d be the first to remind of the day and time (exaggeration but it felt that way) that I had first said I would major in art history. Every change I considered she was there to remind of what I had said some other time–as if change is not ok to attempt. Off topic, but reminded me of your point . . . we are not stuck with one way just because it’s what went down on paper first.

  12. I’m staring at my computer in disbelief because it’s like you’ve been in my head and my house overhearing the conversations I’ve been having with myself and with my husband.

  13. Damn, I love your writing. And you. Loved this the first time I read it and love it now. Thanks for sharing again. Love you, friend.

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