In this craft essay, Masters Review editor Kim Winternheimer uses Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” to examine how success on the sentence level affects story elements.
“New writers fill their sentences with syrupy words or too many adverbs, but good writers use prose to reflect a sensibility about the world.”
Discussed by Kim Winternheimer
“Ghosts and Empties” was published in The New Yorker last July, and while I’ve always been a fan of Lauren’s work (she judged our first anthology!) this story struck me as a special iteration of her ability to craft an incredible sentence.
The story begins with the line: “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and, because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.”
The piece then follows the narrator on a walk through her neighborhood, as she observes the people, houses, and goings on around her. “The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.”
I love a piece that dazzles on the sentence level. New writers fill their sentences with syrupy words or too many adverbs, but good writers use prose to reflect a sensibility about the world. They find something new in an old idea. All of Lauren’s writing is like this. I mark so many lines the page fills up with checkmarks, underlines, and stars. The page is left, literally, dazzling.
I like looking at stories on the line level because it is the first filter between story and reader. When a writer can deliver information in a readable way, but access a different economy in the language, you know immediately you’re in good hands. Take the following passage: “There’s an elegant, tall woman who walks a Great Dane the color of dryer lint; I am afraid that the woman is unwell because she walks rigidly, her face pulsing as if intermittently electrified by pain. I sometimes imagine how, should I barrel around a corner to find her slumped on the ground, I would drape her over her dog, smack his withers, and watch as he, with his great dignity, carried her home.”
David James Poissant mentions concrete imagery in his craft essay on Steven Barthelme’s “Heaven,” citing the importance of delivering vivid visuals to the world of the story. “Ghosts and Empties” feels like a story dedicated entirely to this notion, with this line serving as an excellent example. We can see the woman walking her tall, gray dog. We can see them moving gingerly through the night. We can see the dog, in the narrator’s nighttime vision—and in a quick break with reality—gliding away with the woman draped across his back.
But let’s examine what else is working on the line level. Revisit the passages I mention above, and note their length. Note that while delivering concrete imagery through the use of effective language, Lauren is also architecting sentences to mimic the pace of a long and breathless walk. Brilliant! What is also interesting to me in “Ghosts and Empties,” is the narrative arc that develops—and is enhanced by—Lauren’s choices on the sentence level.
As the narrator walks and watches, she begins to know the houses, people, and animals around her. One could argue that she knows her surroundings better than most, and yet, is kept at a formal distance. She sees, she observes, but is limited in her understanding based solely on what she can infer. She is the most intimate observer in the story, but is never an insider. And thus, the prose enhances the conflict: a duality between seeing and knowing surfaces.
When you read “Ghosts and Empties” you’ll find glimpses—windows if you will—into the life of the narrator. But like the observations of the neighborhood, these glimpses are similarly vague, merely suggestions. Lauren writes: “One night just before Christmas I came home late after a walk and my husband was in the bathroom and I flipped open his computer and saw what I saw there, a conversation not meant for me, a snip of flesh that was not his, and without letting him know I was in the house I about-faced and went out again and walked until it was too cold to walk, until just before dawn, when the dew could easily have been ice.”
The other information readers receive regarding the husband paints a complicated portrait. He is gentle, kind. He, “says, softly, I don’t think you’ve walked it off yet, sweets, you may want to take one more loop.” We’ve also learned from the first line of the story that he puts the kids to bed, does the: “undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in.” He is, “a man that does not yell.” We have an intimate, yet distant, picture of this relationship. We understand its complexity, though we know very little about it.
And so the story offers all this beauty on the sentence level, utilizing observations to escalate what’s at stake. The reader’s nighttime walk with the narrator, by the end of the piece, satisfies the age-old question of storytelling: why do I care?
At the end of the piece, the writing changes. The tone shifts, and the narrator reflects directly on her wanderings, her boys, and her life. At the same time, the world around the narrator, the neighborhood she has been walking through, takes on a new shape. Form and content rearrange. And the breathless writing becomes even more so. (The penultimate sentence has fifteen clauses alone.) The writing turns lyrical, dreamlike, and personal. It’s beautifully rendered, and once again, we’re being told through work on the sentence level, in its delicate shift, to pay attention, that something special is happening. Just lovely.