Free Standard Shipping in the U.S.

Take a Creative Leap in 17-Syllables

make art not war

This has been the season of a personal creative renaissance, likely kicked in by a sudden surplus of time along with aging. These activities have renewed my realization that doing something creative can be of value for everyone. In a life where most of our daily routine focuses on keeping home and hearth going, creating art of any kind permits our brain to test boundaries and explore the new.

In the book, “If this isn’t Nice, What Is? Advice for the Young by Kurt Vonnegut, he says, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” These days, in particular, that hits home with me.


The concept of “The American Sentence” was first coined by writer Allen Ginsberg as an alternative to the haiku as sentences limited to only 17 syllables. The Life Journaling Group met virtually last weekend with an intimate group for our first 17-syllable sentence workshop. My daughter Alexandra facilitated and did a marvelous job of encouraging us along.

We crafted 17-syllable sentences and brainstormed ideas for bending words to our creative will. It was a romping 60 minutes of repartee that helped each of us boost our writing prowess. There was no judgement, just pure joy in the exercise.

We examined each sentence to determine its purpose as we understood it from a reader’s vantage. Here are the primary intentions of a sentence. (slide)

We discussed what we liked about each sentence, and the writer shared what inspired them in writing it. From there, we offered up suggestions to help get the fullest impact from the words.

My sentence for discussion was this one:

Cat glared longingly through the glass; bird flitted coyly at the dumb feline.

I           I           III                 I           I       I         I        II          I        I     I       I          II

Using the lines under the sentence, we tally the syllables. Yep, 17. Getting the right number of syllables is an important part of the process, and I seem to have a hard time tracking. I’m either one over or under. But with hands and fingers counting, I finally manage it.

I was trying to paint a micro-story about the cats I see when I go for walks. So many are stationed like sentries at windows and glass doors, peering diligently outside as if they may will themselves beyond the glass. Hmmm. Right there are some useful alternative words as I write about it!

Once we gleaned what I was attempting to convey, we considered other word choices. Clearly, for example, “cat” and “feline” in the same sentence is not necessary. We talked about removing cat at the beginning and implying it by description.

How about “slit eyes?” What about slit eyes or, maybe, figure out how to include the tail, which often twitches? Cats haunch down a bit in preparation to pounce, so that could be the focus, too.

We also looked at specific words in a sentence to determine which ones we found compelling immediately. “Feline” was better for us all versus “cat,” for example. We also liked “glare.”

What word stands out to you as superfluous? We talked about conjunction and contraction words such as “if,” “and,” and “but.” These can often be eliminated unless required for heavy lifting.

With collaboration, we crafted a refined sentence:

Sentinel twitches; eyes slit, bird coyly flits, dancing beyond the glass.

III                   II               I     I      I         II       I        II            II            I       I


Interestingly, I had loved the word “feline” and thought “slit eyes” was the way to go. However, as you can see with my last version, I’ve left feline out in the end. I think the cat is better described and helps the reader see it. My editing service Grammarly gave me the semi-colon, too, which I honestly would have displaced with a comma, but I like the look of it here.


There is a secret sauce that comes with editing one’s writing. It is a space quite different than the free-flow of the journaling process we talk about in our journaling group, where the act of writing is to spill your brain to put your thoughts to words.

In contrast, editing is the work of manifesting art. The result of 17-syllable sentences thus far has helped me be more intentional in my use of language. It’s an exercise where you, too, can commune with your inner word nerd and see what is possible when you ponder.

Take a turn and share your results as a journal exercise. Here was the prompt we offered at the end of the workshop.

Journaling Prompt


Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash


Leave a comment

Name .
Message .

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published