When I was a kid, I had a friend who wrote constantly. Every day—usually prose poetry. This kid knew how to write. He wrote phrases I still remember off the top of my head. Sentences like: “Maybe the future is a firework.” Words that, when strung together, bristled with surrealism and action. But he didn’t know how to write to the standards of Strunk and White.
He left dangling modifiers everywhere, carelessly strewn about like old socks. He spelled “garage” as “grodge,” a transgression that left me horrified. And it was hard for me to reconcile the magical quality of my friend’s writing with the casual blunders he made in every paragraph. Having proper grammar was a way for me, and a way for many others, I suspect, to feel as though my writing was worthwhile. But I had not reached a point where I could write with the freedom and imagination that my friend possessed.
One linguistics course in college turned this around for me. I was right about one thing, at least. Language is about communication. And when grammar is held in higher esteem than language, you get the lamest and least communicable sentences in the world. On the rule about ending a sentence with a preposition, Winston Churchill famously said, “This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.” It’s a sentence that parodies such rules about language, as it requires so much dissecting and rearranging for the sake of… what? Grammar? Please.
Writing has also taught me that language is about experimentation, which is at risk of being smothered when you spend so much time focusing on the mechanics. I’m recalling Shakespeare’s invention of words we use and recognize today. The majority of them are words that, like in my friend’s writing, feel alive with action (“remorseless,” “champion,” “negotiate”).
I’m still discovering new words all the time that make me feel this way. I came across the word “chantepleure,” which is just two French words mashed together. In archaic English it meant “alternately singing and weeping.” I loved it immediately because it was the perfect description of the blues. In modern day French, it refers to the the bottom of the wine press where the wine sings and weeps as it filters out. I loved it anew as a symbol of the metaphorical prowess of the French.
A while ago, I was in a music shop with a friend. The owner saw us come in and asked how we were doing. “I’m doing good,” I said.
“‘Doing well,’” he corrected, his eyes narrowing at me in that familiar way. Of course, I know the difference. I have used my little red pen against such phrases. I say, “I’m doing good” because it feels casual and friendly. People who use “I’m doing well” almost never seem to say it in a friendly way. In fact, I only ever hear it accompanied with those narrowed eyes.
Now that I’ve internalized the idea that good grammar doesn’t make me superior to others, I’m not as good of a copy editor anymore. I put on my copy editing hat when my job requires it; I make changes because someone else wants them, and not because I take personal offense at other people’s mistakes.
But this has allowed me to be inspired by language again, and that is very much within the spirit of NaNoWriMo. Write now. Edit later. I have rarely felt a thrill when copy editing that didn’t come at someone else’s expense, and that’s just not what good editing is about. When editing, it’s my job to make sure people get what you’re trying to say, not to make you feel bad. When writing, it’s my job to remember that I’m writing to share a story, and the spark of life that comes with it.
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