I flunked the Building Great Sentences Course


Shiloh National Military Park


The other day, I was on a Google+ Hangout with Caleb Pirtle, Bert Carson, Christina Carson and Jack Durish.  In the course of that conversation, we happened upon the topic of on-line education classes and more particularly The Great Courses catalog of offerings.

One thing led to another and  I had to tell about my experience with Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft, a twenty-four part lecture series by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine who knew I had started writing gave me Professor Landon’s lectures,  a two volume set of CDs. I thanked him and promptly filed them away.  But as fate would have it, the summer of 2010 brought a long solo road trip for me from East Texas to Louisville, Kentucky.  For some reason I decided that would be the perfect time to break out Professor Landon.

In the first hour or so, I learned of what the professor called “cumulative sentences.” These are sentences that operate on multiple levels and grow increasingly complex.  I had that part down  by Monroe, Louisiana.

Professor Landon Brooks

The cat ate the rat. Level one.

The cat, mewing and clawing at the door, wanted to eat the rat.  Level Two

I turned north on US 165 and skirted the west bank of the Mississippi River until I reached Greenville, Mississippi, the home of the Delta Blues Trail.

Scratching its ears, the cat, mewing and clawing at the door, wanted to eat the rat, that noxious nocturnal purveyor of disease.  Level Four.

I had determined to make it as far as Shiloh that evening, so I could rise early and visit the National Military Park on the banks of the Tennessee River.  The Toyota Sequoia became a prison house of erudition as I traversed the alluvial plain and ascended to higher ground.  By the time I reached the Holiday Inn Select a few miles south of the battleground, I had begun to babble in five-level cumulative sentences.

Because my credit card cleared the front desk, the clerk asked me no questions.

By sunrise the next morning, I was in the park.

Forgetful of his Bambi-ish youth, oblivious to the intrusion of modern man, the deer tip-toed into a clearing, a place where a Confederate general thought victory at hand, a victory as ephemeral as a fruit fly’s childhood, a childhood devoid of joy, a precursor of a failed life. Level Six.

I couldn’t enjoy the moment, the few  minutes of a lifetime when I would walk those hallowed grounds, the fields where blue and gray men gasped their last breaths.

By the time I reached Louisville, I was incoherent.

I placed the CD collection in my suitcase.  A week later, I entered writer’s rehab, aka, the real world.

Occasionally, I feel the tug of those cumulative sentences. I know they have their place, when used with caution. But I doubt I could pass the professor’s course with this.

On the most beautiful day of summer, I drove at day break into the Shiloh National Military Park.  Three hundred yards in, I saw a herd of deer who looked at me, an intruder.  I parked and walked through the cemetery to a stone path that led down to the river.  The surface of the water shimmered in the rising sun as I thought of the Yankees, how they reinforced their troops from the north bank granting a general’s reprieve.

I watched two men in a twenty-one foot center console boat anchor along a sand bar midstream and drop their fishing lines in the water. I watched as they gave up and moved farther upstream toward the great dam.

I mourned for the fallen on both sides, got in my car and headed away from that sacred ground, earth stained forever with the lifeblood of brothers.


(Stephen Woodfin has visited the Shiloh National Military Park twice.  He considers it a place like no other.)

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Related Posts