Sentences That Give Life

A skilled writer is mindful of various kinds of sentences and types of sentence structure and of the powerful ways they can be combined. Basic grammar texts talk of declarative, imperative, interrogative, and exclamatory sentences as well as their simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex structures. Such knowledge is important and we will consider it elsewhere.

Our focus in this writing activity, however, is on the larger purposes that such sentences serve. Consider these familiar words from the Christian scriptures:

  • God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalms 46:1)
  • Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. (Proverbs 16:8)
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Jesus:

Or these from other religious traditions: 

  • A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. (Lao Tse, Tao TeChing)
  • We behold what we are and we are what we behold.  (The Bhagavad Gita)
  • It is not the language, but the speaker that we want to understand. (The Upanishads)
  • Give a bowl of rice to a man and you will feed him for a day. Teach him how to grow his own rice and you will save his life. (Confucius, The Analects
  • In the end, these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go? (Gautama Buddha)

We draw inspiration from the eloquence of poets:

  • To err is human; to forgive, divine. (Alexander Pope) 
  • A thing of beauty is a joy forever. (John Keats)
  • Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all. (Tennyson)
  • Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud (Maya Angelou)

We recall the words of statesmen, orators, activists, and writers:

  • To be content with what we possess is the greatest and most secure of riches (Cicero)
  • Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking. (Black Elk)
  • The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in the moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. (Martin Luther King)
  • You can spend your time agonizing or organizing. (Dorothy Day)
  • I still have my feet on the ground, I just wear better shoes. (Oprah Winfrey)
  • Diplomacy is letting someone else have your way. (Lester B. Pearson)
  • Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. (Rachel Carson)

We are fortunate to have the wisdom of our forebears and contemporaries crystallized in clear statements. At their best, such great sentences as these convey energy, insight, and wisdom. In short, they give life.

Sentences That Give Life:   Writing Guidelines

Option A: Commonplace Quotations

If you are an active reader, you likely will recall the experience of finding an idea so well expressed that you highlight it (if you own the book) or stop and make a copy of it. Then you can refer back to it without having to locate the book and the salient passage. This is a practice that dates back for centuries and it is a way of creating a repository of intellectual gleanings. Many people keep the sentences they extract from their readings in a notebook, often called a “Commonplace Book.” 

For writers and thinkers, the evolving collection of quotations stored n their Commonplace Book can serve as personal reference tool.  Some follow a messy, catch-all approach; others have theirs neatly organized and indexed.  But for all, it is a way of keeping the ideas freshly in mind, an ongoing mental dialogue.

Perhaps you have used a reference work such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Essentially these are well-refined “commonplace books.” John Bartlett was a prodigious reader and since he kept an organized collection of quotations, others soon consulted with him, and in time that led to the publication of his book. We continue the practice today, though now the quickest means of access may be to use an Internet search engine, typing in a particular topic or a writer’s name. Even so, it is most meaningful if have found a particular quotation or statement through your own reading and bring to it an understanding of its particular context and its meaning in the larger work.

Joan Chittister is a well-known Benedictine nun and and the author of numerous faith-related books. Chittister developed one, a spiritual memoir titled Called To Question, from sentences she had copied into her commonplace book. “This book began in a daybook that had been constructed around various quotations from a selection of spiritual writers,” she confides in her prologue. “I made my entries a kind of dialogue with the idea of the day as I saw it in my own life at that particular moment.”

Chittister continued her “dialogue” with those life-giving sentences over a five-year period. Later, she took the process a step further. She elaborated her journaled responses and began to connect those thoughts with her personal experiences and spiritual growth.

Our aim in this “Commonplace Quotations” writing activity is much the same.

  • First, seek out those sentences that you find give you life. Perhaps you already have a collection, quotations and ideas you have jotted down as you have read. Perhaps you have books you have read, highlighting special passages or making annotations in the margins. If you have neither resource, use a quotations book or an Internet source to locate sentences that speak to you, ones that resonate with your life experiences.
  • Then, as Chittister did, engage in a dialogue with the idea expressed in the quotation. You need not attempt a full-length book, but choose at least three or four quotations and respond to them. You might wish to come back to each one several times, jotting down your thoughts as they percolate through your memory. 

As you elaborate your responses, you might wish to employ the “Evocative Recall” approach described in Option B of the “Turning Points” Writing Activity. Opening ourselves to the rich inner flow of our subconscious can be a rewarding experience, both emotionally and in writing productivity. Francis Dorff, in Simply Soul Stirring, provides guidelines for meditative writing. He relates the evocative approach to the lectio divina practice in the Christian monastic tradition, “a way of reading not just for information but for personal transformation.” Writers sometimes are asked where they get their ideas; they can be the creative fruition of quiet inward listening, meditation and contemplation.

  • The final step in your writing would be to see if you can connect your responses to those quotations into a larger whole. Initially, they may seem to be distinct and unrelated. Yet each one has at least one thing in common—you! Your interpretive perspective may provide the necessary thread to give your various responses a greater unity. 

Option B: Personal Proverbs (or My Maxims)

Our lives are enriched by the wise sayings of others, but we too likely have our own characteristic sayings, ones that our spouse, children or friends might remind us of. My mother often said, “Use your head or use your feet.” It was a saying she had learned from her mother and it may not have been original with her. It has the ring of an old folk saying. Its meaning, however, was lasting—if I think ahead I may save myself the waste of physical energy. My father had a remark that was definitely original to him: “Slam, bang, here we come again!” It was a gruff remark, but it prompted me to learn not to fling a door shut, but to close it carefully and quietly. More generally, it taught me to tread softly and not to create unnecessary noise.

In my own life, I too have developed a number of characteristic sayings, ones that others might describe as my “proverbs” or “maxims.”  One is:

  • “Say yes…and figure out how.” 

My Initial Journal Response: I observed years ago that people often respond to new opportunities, by saying “No,” but then regret it. As they reflect on the possibilities the invitation offered, they begin to see how they might have approached it. My “Say yes” maxim has opened the doors to some very interesting involvements. In one instance, the opportune caller was shocked when I said yes; she already had been turned down by dozens of others, mostly because the timing was inconvenient. Of course, saying “Yes” sometimes has created difficulty for me—an overburdened schedule, late work nights, a scramble to learn all that I need to before a given deadline. Yet, as a result of it, I have enjoyed many interesting experiences and met some fascinating people.

Here is another:

  • “Moving on is easier than letting go”.

My Initial Journal Response:  I spoke these words, not for the first time, to our school’s graduating class the year I retired. They were moving on to life after high school; I was moving into retirement. All of us probably felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety. We anticipated new opportunities and directions in our lives, yet many of us did not have a clear sense of what those were. For those of us with a keen interest in new learning and new involvements, “moving on” brings visions of new locations, new work positions, new stages of life. Yet it also can be a time of awkward transition. I’d heard the colloquial description of a friend who retired: “He’s having a hard time shifting gears.” As we confront the energy demands of new involvements with a high “learning curve,” how do we detach ourselves from previous commitments, old expectations and emotional entanglements? How do we go forward without towing heavy baggage, without feeling encumbered by engagements that in the past have been meaningful. Such rites of passage as graduation ceremonies and retirement teas may help us to say farewell. We also need to seek emotional closure and mental distancing, so we continue to live in the present and are not distracted by concerns of the past or future preoccupations. It is not easy and it does take time, but with patience and perhaps some grieving, we can let go.

I could add a number of such personal proverbs or maxims to my list of examples, but the point is made. What is most important is that you recall your own and take time to reflect on them. The focus, in this writing activity, is not on volume, but on value. It may require a special effort even to note such sentences as these, the ones to which children sometimes reply, “You always say that!” Yes, indeed…and it is worth repeating, and then worth reflecting on.

  • Identify three or more of your personal proverbs, whether they are original to you or picked up from someone else (“Use your head or use your feet”).
  • Take time to make a journal response, writing for five, ten, or fifteen minutes as you think about the meaning of those words and the role they play in your life.  You might wish to come back to each one several times, seeing what new thoughts or aspects come to mind each time you revisit it. Do not worry about repeating yourself; at least some of what you write on a second or third occasion will have distinct perspectives.
  • The final step in this writing option would be to review each of your previous journal responses to a particular proverb or maxim and then to combine them into a single larger response.

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.