Sentence Diagramming: Michael Perry Favorites

Michael Perry has one of my favorite writerly voices. He writes approachable but still aching beautiful prose, prose that makes an English major like me grab for a pencil to underline and annotate and star as I read. And since he narrates his own audiobooks (and I’ve seen him in person a few times), I can easily hear his deep, gravelly audible voice, complete with Wisconsin accent, as I read his words in print.

His best lines are complicated. I mean, how does one diagram this?:

I will never cut it as a Quaker – I cannot find it in me to renounce all violence, not with two daughters under my protection – but I do love their silent hour, which in my case invariably evolved into a self-scouring meditation on the idea that the busy life is not the full life.

I couldn’t. Gave up halfway through. First of all, I’m not sure how to do asides like “I cannot find it in my to renounce all violence, not with two daughters under my protection.” Second of all, the diagram just wouldn’t fit in the software I use.

Here are some that I did successfully diagram.

Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun.

summer here comes on hippie chick PERRY

Those participles jazzed and flinging tripped me up. I’m actually not sure I did them correctly–wasn’t sure how to join two participles with a conjunction–but I think I got it right. Either way, they’re pleasing with their downward slopes next to each other, each seeming to lead into the next, then flinging leading into fistfuls.

By the way, this site has a great explanation about the difference between participial phrases (like “jazzed on chlorophyll” and “flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun”) and adjective clauses.

Many of my Perry fave sentences have participles. I’ve been editing them out of my own writing, actually, but I think I might reconsider that because they work so well for him. Below is another great quote with a participle, pressing. (I could see a version of this sentence where (are) pressing acts at the verb. This is another great argument for leaving words out of sentences because the rhythm wouldn’t be nearly as good with “are”. The participle is better.)

The sky is deep black, the stars pressing down brilliantly all around, and I am reminded that we are not beneath the constellations, but among them.

sky deep black PERRY

This sentence grows over time; the first phrase is short and simple, the second more complicated with the lovely cascade of adverbs “down brilliantly all around,” and the final independent clause longest and most complicated of all.

Perry doesn’t just use participles; he also seems to embrace gerunds, like showing up.

Alice once told me artistry does not reside in motivation but rather stems from showing up, with the intent to be honest.

Alice told me artistry PERRY

I liked the forked path of this diagram, how the subject of the sentence, Alice, is really just a side note, an introduction to the real subject, “artistry,” which comes in on the tree as a direct object to the first independent clause before branching off into its own realm and descriptions.

This final sentence almost broke me. It barely fit into the software screen. Look at all those dotted lines.

The pesto and angel hair are warm in the bowl on my lap, the fragrances of olive oil and basil blending the exotic and familiar, equal parts sunny Tuscan hillside and hometown dirt.

pesto and angel hair PERRY

I wasn’t sure how to diagram the first part of the sentence and connect it to the rest. “The pesto and angel hair are warm…” and “the fragrances…” are items in a list, almost. I just winged it.

Actually… blending should be another participle. Hmmm….Let’s see what that would look like.

pesto and angel hair Perry 2

That’s better, and it makes for a more beautiful diagram, I think.

I made up a few other things, such as how equal parts connects to both the first part of the clause and sunny Tuscan hillside and hometown dirt after. Maybe this is where the art of diagramming takes over from the science. Or, maybe I’m doing it wrong! Feel free to correct me!

More information about sentence diagramming: The Grammar Revolution. I used Let’s Diagram to create the diagrams. 

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