I have a book of fairy tales that used to be my grandmother’s. Of course it has the dusty smell of an old book, and pictures. And under each picture is a sentence from the tale surrounding it; a sentence that is perfectly flat in the way only sentences in fairy tales can be perfectly flat:
“He raised his gun and aimed at it.”
“The frog feasted heartily, but every morsel seemed to stick in her throat.”
“The people besought their king to buy the wonderful animal.”
Flatness doesn’t confuse like vagueness. Unlike minimalism, it doesn’t give readers the sense that something’s been left out or erased. And it is not simple, for simple sentences stop us; simple sentences are mostly dead ends. Instead, fairy tale sentences create emotion and conflict. There is danger, a hint of the visceral. Within their juxtaposition of disparate images are feelings of violence and time and space and conversation. Yet not in the way we know violence and time and space and conversation. If the sentences are flat, and they are, they also have a unique kind of depth. This, I think, must come from their own belief in themselves; from their uncanny ability not to question, to not even think about questioning.
Here is what it really is: as readers, we are used to words giving us at least as much as we give to them. We are used to the taking. But in fairy tales, the sentences give us so little (or nothing) of that, and we crash against them. The flatness stumps us at first. Then with nowhere to go we ebb back into ourselves. This is why these sentences take our breaths away; they are like trying to breathe with our mouths up against a window.
Here is what I do when I try to write flat sentences: I think of a bucket of water spilling without wetness. Of shards of mirror too dull to cut. I divorce myself from what I know about seasons and days, until they no longer carry the weight of time. And I begin to imagine that nothing has any weight, or more specifically that everything weighs the same. I attempt to write so that the experience of the sentence must be solely on the reader, that as the writer my experience must not, cannot, lurk behind the words at all:
“He took up plow, harrow, horses and all, and carried them home like a bundle of straw.”
“The flounder came swimming up, and said, ‘Well, what do you want.’”