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What Do Fish, Sentences, and Rhetorical Analysis Have to do with Creativity?

“It was in the books while it was still in the sky.”

Updike’s famous sentence is one of Stanley Fish’s all-time favorites and in his elegant prose style, he tells us why and how it’s as great as it is. And it’s inspiring and transcendent sentences throughout Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One that make it a surprisingly compelling and illuminating read.

Ultimately, Fish asks a central question that develops over the course his arguments about what makes a great sentence: Is crafted language a vehicle for the writer’s thoughts, or is it almost the other way around? In other words, do our thoughts yield to our means of expression? Does language have its own “generative and determining powers”?

A semantic question perhaps, but one with considerable resonance when you unfold it. At first, it seems that for all the formal construction of the various styles and techniques Fish considers that you’d have to easily come down on the side of thought over the vehicle that provides it. I even journaled about it while reading his book.

Aren’t writers most ‘proud’ of the quality of their thinking on display at even the higher levels of sentence craft? Craft is how the thought is executed, but it’s ultimately the thought behind it that makes it immortal.”

The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Public Catalogue Foundation

On the one hand you could say, as Fish does early on that it’s all about the craft, and not about the quality of thought.

It may sound paradoxical, but verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.”

And Fish goes on to demonstrate through a long series of various kinds of sentences, what formally–in technique-driven, specific ways of sentence construction–constitutes a great sentence. To my estimation, a sentence really snaps only when there is a thought behind the form that provokes, surprises, or engages.

Creativity is often contrasted with forms to the latter’s detriment, but the truth is that forms are the engines of creativity.”

The forms themselves, you begin to realize, lead you to making moves in your writing you otherwise would not make–or even know you could make. I’ve seen it in students’ writing hundreds of times. Once I started calling them “immersions” instead of “exercises” the results were even more dramatic. Probably, for the sake of our own improved writing, we shouldn’t worry about whether it’s the thought itself that reigns supreme. We should improve our craft and let the results speak for themselves.

But how does this compositional or rhetorical analysis really lead to greater creativity, as my title promises? That’s probably one of the more important takeaways here. Our culture still perpetuates the myth of the genius, secreted away somewhere writing one’s genius separate from other’s thoughts and craft, as Elizabeth Gilbert reminds us. But Fish works to demonstrate in one example after another of a wide variety of styles, both informal and formal, that there are specific, accessible means for understanding sentence construction through which we can all learn and emulate.

This, then, is my theology: You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free.”


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