Thursday, March 3, 2011

Creativity & Grammar

Insistence on correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling kills the creative spirit. How many coulda-been Shakespeares have bled to death at the jab of the red pen? How many innocent children have been soured on writing when their precious expressions were “corrected” by a cruel rulemonger? If you think you “can’t write” because you don’t know what a prepositional phrase is, you, too, might be a victim of this evil conspiracy of grammar, and you should spread your wings and just write!


Wrong. Hope I didn’t get you starting a slow clap and an exuberant march to MLA headquarters in New York. Nothing could be more wrongheaded than the opening drivel above. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the tools of the writing trade, and you have no more right to misuse them than carpenters have a right to go about flinging a hacksaw in the air like a Frisbee.

If I sound a little bit passionate, it’s because I’m deeply offended by the way people are so eager to toss aside the tools of my beloved trade like so much clutter. For some reason, writing is the only art in which such nonsense is contemplated. You never hear someone say they want to be a dancer but don’t much care for music, or that they want to be a chef but can’t bear the sight of food. Yet, somehow the fact that someone once said you were creative or you think you are makes many people believe they have the right to massacre the English language (or any other they attempt) in the name of creativity.

We’ve all seen the nuts on American Idol who only think they can sing. They make idiots of themselves on national television, and it’s funny, or sad, or both. But no onenot even Paula Abdul or whomever the current nice judge might be (I only see this show when other people force me to, so I don’t know)no one suggests they persevere despite their complete lack of talent. The whole point of the idiot participation spectacle is to showcase the foolhardiness of people who are blind to their own blindness.

When it comes to writing, however, the critic shuts down. As long as you’re writing, it’s great! So what if it’s the print equivalent of a caterwauling lunatic like William Hung? Part of the reason for this critical failure might be the fact that, unlike good singing, good writing is largely a mystery. The average person is about as capable of judging good writing as good food. Raised on Whoppers and Big Macs, the tongue is incapable of registering anything but fat and sugar. We are content with writing that gets the pointusually a very small, simple point, like “meet me @6”across, and whether it does so with elegance or even just expediency is of no importance. We’ve lost our gag reflex when it comes to bad writing, and adopted an anything goes approach that is serviceable if not pleasing.

Stand and DeliverAnother reason for the critical failure is that writing is saddled with a psychological function much more than the other arts. Any problem can apparently be solved by simply writing about it, and to suggest that people submit the effluvia of their souls to mechanical rules is psychoheresy. Notice that, whenever a young person is in trouble in any novel or film involving an academic setting, it’s always the English teacher that comes to the rescue, with the possible exception of Stand and Deliver. Notice in Stand and Deliver, however, that no one ever suggests that the students “express themselves” numerically. It’s through mastery of the field that they achieve not self-expression, but self-confidence.

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by SapphireYet, how many times do we have to see the English teacher throw the book out the window, to the transformative cheers of the students? The latest installment of this phenomenon is Precious. I’ve taught desperate adult learners, highschool dropouts or recent immigrants trying to better their lives. The last thing they need is to express themselves. What they really need is basic skills, delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible, so they can get that job and the stigma of illiteracy off them. Then they can worry about expressing themselves.

No academic field has suffered as much from the burden of psychology as writing. One of the first things I was taught when I was taught to teach was to put away my red pen. Corrections had to be made, of course, but preferably in some less psychologically damaging color, like blue, oreven betterin the delicate whisper of a pencil. My students’ psyches were so fragile, apparently, that the mere sight of red ink was enough to make them faint. They also suffered from an overwhelming, irrepressible boredom, making it impossible to teach anything as stultifying as grammar. Not even the shenanigans of Schoolhouse Rock could overcome such ennui. Grammar, at best, was to be imbibed “holistically,” picked up like an ABBA tune one could recall at the appropriate moment.

The result of these well-meaning philosophies is that not only can no one write correctly, but also that no one feels any sense of shame or even error at the grossest of mistakes. Chalk up another victory for the Anti-intellectual Brigade: to be punctilious about grammar is laughable, a mark of your uptightness or perhaps inability to understand the post-text cyberworld of advanced communication. Of your general nerdiness. It smacks of librarian hair buns, Erkel suspenders, and generalized virginity.

Besides, who needs to learn grammar, when all you have to do is run a grammar and spellcheck? Or, my favorite: All the Famous Writers Who Were Famously Not Good at Grammar. Someone always trots out Faulkner. I took a course in Faulkner that made me read everything he ever wrote. I have no idea what people are talking about when they say he wasn’t good at grammar. These must be the same people who just click “change” or “autocorrect” and then “print.”

The truth is Faulkner, like all good writers, was sufficiently good at writing that he could shape words into the patterns that he wanted, even when those patterns were against the rules, the way a jazz musician improvises or a painter, sculptor, dancer, or any other artist uses the medium of the art in innovative ways, which is creative, not destructive. They make informed choices, not ignorant ones. Your four-year-old little brother doesn’t know good grammar. It doesn’t make him Faulkner.

I’ve also heard beginning writers say things like, “But, isn’t that what editors are for? To fix my grammar?” Please. There are plenty of excellently crafted and perfectly written manuscripts piled miles high on every editor’s desk or inbox. Why would anyone bother with one that needs work?

Cultivate horror and shame when it comes to bad writing. If you so much as misplace an apostrophe, you should hear the gasp from the audience that sees the skater tumble to the ice mid-triple-axel or the knee bending the wrong way as the quarterback crumples to the ground. The good news is that good grammar, punctuation, and spelling, unlike the finer, “creative” points of writing, is not a matter of talent. Anyone who puts genuine effort into it can do it. No, most people don’t find it fun. Some actually doit’s a science of words and can be compelling to the scientifically inclined. But, no, most people don’t find it fun, in the same way that practicing a triple axel or shooting a ball through a hoop or playing the scales for hours and hours every day isn’t fun. But it’s rewarding and liberating, and when you can manipulate words like musical notes or make them reach across a page like the semantic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, you’ll feel that same thrill that belongs to every artist from the skater to the football player to the musician to the writer.

English Composition and Grammar : Complete CourseThe bad news is that getting to the exosphere of grammar and punctuation is a process that should take years, and, if you were cheated out of a decent education, it’s going to take a lot of effort from you to make up for that. There are no shortcuts. Get a decent grammar book and sit down with it every single day and work through it. I recommend Warriner’s English Composition and Grammar, a book that is unfortunately only available from used book dealers. It’s not cute, gimmicky, or fun. But it’s straightforward, and it has diagnostic tests and exercises that you can do on your own.

Write every day, and write well. You may have been a great dancer or football player once, but, if it’s been over a month since you’ve used those muscles, you will be sore and clumsy, and, if you wait longer than that, you may never be able to dance or play again. Grammar is the writer’s muscle. Exercise it. Don’t allow yourself the clumsy sentence in the email to your boss or the misused word on your tweet. Look over anything you write with that same attitude of pride and craft with which you put together a great outfit, cook a great meal, or wash your car. No more let a piece of your writing get away from you with an error than you would leave your house without pants.

Learn to walk before you try to run.


  1. Love this post and I love Conjunction Junction!! I'm trying to gather inspiration from you as I sit with my fiction story before me.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...