Grammar Geek

Dear Writing Friends,
 
I’m sitting on the deck of Mozart’s Coffee Roasters, overlooking Ladybird Lake in Austin. Shira and I hang here most weekend mornings, reading, writing, and enjoying the relatively cool temperatures. It won’t be long before the heat hits in full force here. A few moments ago a family of swans swam by. Shira and I watched the two adults swoop their undulating necks in and out of the water, while their baby practiced paddling nearby. Before they left, the mother spread her feathers upward, creating a cradle on her back to carry away her little one. If you’ve ever seen the Swan Boat in the Boston Garden, you’d recognize the prototype. Shira was fascinated by the swans. But while the other children lingered to gawk and discuss other water foul sightings, she quickly returned to her seat to finish the story she was writing. She hit on an idea earlier and wasn’t ready to relinquish the rush of words pouring out of her. 
 
Before we left the house this morning, Shira discovered a stack of old journals in her bedroom. In one of these journals she found a story she wrote last year. It inspired her to write another.
 
“I was a really good writer, Mom,” she said, “but my spelling was horrible. Look how I spelled ‘quite.’” She spelled it C-W-I-T-E. The story was full of imaginative sound spelling.
 
“Mrs. Wellins understood how the creative process works,” I said, jumping on the teaching moment. “She knew it was important to let the story flow and worry about spelling later.”
 
Last week Shira and I had a similar conversation about the writing process. She was tired of learning the rules of grammar in her language arts class and wanted more time for creative writing. I thought a few of Natalie’s rules for writing practice might cheer her up. She knew about “Keep your hand moving,” because we had practiced it together, but her eyes lit up when I told her Rule #3: “Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar.”
 
“Really?” she said. Kids love it when grown-ups break the rules. We also talked about separating the creator from the editor. Shira knows about this intuitively. At nine years old, she doesn’t have creative blocks. But I wanted her to hear it, so that she would continue to trust herself and not have that spark stamped out of her.
 
Personally, I enjoy all parts of the writing process. I love to let my mind wander all over my notebook, and I love revision. I especially like polishing my sentences—cutting out fat, finding the strongest word, putting commas in, taking commas out, etc. When I was writing my master’s thesis, I kept a copy of Strunk and White’s, Elements of Style, on my nightstand and read it every night before bed. I confess I’m a grammar geek. However, I recognize not everyone enjoys the ins and outs of proper usage the way I do, and that has presented a challenge for me in my coaching practice. How do I move my clients from practice to polished work without squeezing the life out of their enthusiasm? One client became so overwhelmed when I mentioned prepositional phrases she started to hyperventilate. Later she told me that our little foray into editing convinced her she was washed up as a writer. I realized that going on about dangling participles and the distinction between “that” and “which” was not going to be a turn-on for most of my students and clients. “Let’s take it one step at a time,” I told her. “Let’s start with very, just, and really.”
 
“Who?” she asked. Evidently, she thought I was referring to a man, Ferry Justin Rilley.
 
“No, that’s VERY, JUST, and REALLY,” I repeated. “Just start there. Whenever you see ‘very,’ ‘just,’ or ‘really,’ cut it out.”
 
“Oh,” she said. “I like that.” Although she was still smitten with the idea of Ferry Justin Rilly, a grammar superhero with magical powers of revision.
 
I shared my client’s story with Shira. We were driving on Mo-Pac, which is where I deliver most of my lectures—with my daughter strapped into her seat barreling down the highway five miles above the speed limit.
 
“Listen to the difference,” I said, “between ‘I am very happy’ and  ‘I am happy.’ Or, ‘I’m just frightened,’ versus, ‘I am frightened.” I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw her look of recognition.
 
“I never noticed that,” she said. To her mind it sounded better, stronger.
 
Later I was thinking that “very happy” sounds like something you say at a high school reunion as you try to convince your former classmates that your life in the suburbs with two kids, a dog and a parakeet, is making you very happy—as opposed to all your youthful dreams that you abandoned for security. On the other hand, “I am happy” comes from the belly. It speaks of deep contentment and needs no embellishment. Of course if you want to express that you’re exceedingly, ridiculously happy, you might choose “ecstatic.” That will stop your old friends in their tracks and make them feel inferior for sure.
 
Cutting out “very, just, and really,” is not only about making a stronger sentence. It’s about the power of the ordinary word. Sometimes I get so absorbed in cleaning up my prose, I overlook or don’t appreciate the force of a word like happy. No one can define happiness, but when you lay it down in a simple sentence, “I am happy,” we all feel it and know it and want it for ourselves.

 
Writing Topic: Listen to the difference.
 
This month’s quotation is yet another Jane Kenyon poem. (I am a little obsessed and have promised my poet friends that one day I will explore another poet—but not until I’ve finished with Jane!). I thought of this one when I was writing about happiness. You’ll notice she uses, “just,” in the first line. So much for the rules!

 
Happiness
 
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered fortune away.
 
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
 
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
 
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
            It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.
 
(Jane Kenyon, from Otherwise)
 
 

(C) 2011 Saundra Goldman