It was Virginia Woolf who said (I think) that instead of paying attention to a writer’s sentences (all those little marginal checkmarks of affirmation) we should pay attention to their chapters. I think this is a good idea but would offer one more metric of appreciation: the paragraph. I don’t think you should focus on one to the exclusion of the other lengths, but they are all different ways to appreciate what a writer is up to or the different speeds at which they excel.
Enter Lorrie Moore, whom I love essentially without reservation. Without going into a full defense or promotion of her work, I just want to note how wonderful she is at writing paragraphs. Normally she’s known for her sharp one-liners, slicing you unaware, and it’s true she’s got great lines and an amazing sense of rhythm. But it’s how these elements combine into whole paragraphs, where they all coalesce that I think is the mark of true excellence.
Here’s an examples from her story “Debarking”:
“You can’t imagine the daily dreariness of routine pediatrics,” said Zora, not touching her wine. “Ear infection, ear infection, ear infection. Whoa. Here’s an exciting one: juvenile onset diabetes. Day after day you just have to look into the parents’ eyes and repeat the same exciting thing: ‘There are a lot of viruses going around.’ I had thought about going into pediatric oncology, because when I asked other doctors why they’d gone into such a seemingly depressing thing, they said, ‘Because the kids don’t get depressed.’ That seemed interesting to me. And hopeful. But then when I asked doctors in the same field why they were retiring early, they said they were sick of seeing kids die. The kids don’t get depressed, they just die! These were my choices in med school. As an undergraduate I took a lot of art classes and did sculpture, which I still do a little, to keep those creative juices flowing! But what I would really like to do now is write children’s books. I look at some of those books out in the waiting room and I want to throw them in the fish tank. I think, I could do better than that. I started one about a hedgehog.”
This has all the characteristics of a classic Moore paragraph: the monologue that rapidly unspools a character, the desperate exclamation points, the swerving between emotional registers. Just look at how far the paragraph travels.
And here’s a bonus example, this one illustrating her impeccable sense of rhythm. It’s from the essay “Better and Sicker,” which appeared in Issue 4, Volume 2 of PEN America back in 2002.
I often think of an acquaintance of mine who is also a writer and whom I ran into once in a bookstore. We exchanged hellos, and when I asked her what she was working on these days, she said, “Well, I was working on a long comic novel, but then in the middle of the summer my husband had a terrible accident with an electric saw and lost three of his fingers. It left us so sad and shaken that when I returned to writing, my comic novel kept getting droopier, darker and sadder and depressing. So I scrapped it, and started writing a novel about a man who loses three fingers in an accident with a saw, and that,” she said, “that’s turning out to be really funny.”