Respect For The Gifts

There’s something that goes on in the writing community that makes me peevish.

This comes up for me again because when Kait read Kristen’s post on POV Prostitution, she came to me and said, “I don’t understand how anyone doesn’t just intuitively get POV.”

Now it’s not that Kait thinks she’s perfect in this regard. I’ve gone POV police on her, Pink Hammer’s put “Objection: calls for speculation on the part of the POV character” in her work more than once. But they’re just slip-ups. She does have that sound grasp of the mechanics of POV that Kristen goes over in her post. To Kait it’s very simple, “One head at a time,” she IMs me, “first, third, or God.”

What I thought was kind of adorable about her, as she IMs me with the picture of her in this dorky penguin hat, was the part about understanding and intuition. Honey, of course you don’t understand how other people don’t get what you get. That’s what intuitively means. You don’t even understand how you get it, you just do.

So I say that I think it doesn’t help at all that we’re given so much omniscient POV stuff in school as young readers. Which leads to this whole mutual bitch session about all the stuff we have to read in school that’s not all about producing good modern, commercial novelists. Which is another thing Kristen touches on in her post.

So I’m saying that the thing of it is, not all of us are on the same path and not all of us have been reading and writing constantly since young childhood. I think that there are a number of people who pick up writing as adults who don’t necessarily have the history of reading that other writers do. So what’s in their toolbox is largely story and character arc stuff they’ve absorbed off screen, and writing mechanics leftover from those school assignments. When you read, even before you learn to analyze everything in writerly fashion, on some level you’re studying the writing stuff, you’re immersed in language. Eventually you reach the point where it’s just there for you when you need it. Intuitively.

So I yammered all that to Kait and she said, “I think there’s a blog post in there.”

And I said, “It actually goes along with this whole grrr thing I have, so yeah, maybe.”

And the grrr thing is this: It makes me sad and a little angry when I see authors rag on people in public because they don’t write well. And there’s one occasion of this that really sticks in my head, an incident where an author I really respect published an email they had received which asked for advice on publishing. And this author’s answer to masses was that if your basic grammar skills are this bad, if you’re not even going to bother to proofread a request for advice, then you don’t even need to worry about taking that next step.

And yeah, okay, the person who sent the email will probably never be published. But damn, you know? Look, it’s not the first time I’ve seen this kind of thing on the internet and it reads like disgust. It feels dismissive. To me it feels ugly and makes me sad.

Do you know why I’m a decent writer? Do you know why I can put words and sentences together and they just come out in mostly correct English as I think them? Because I was blessed to grow up in home where people spoke English correctly. Because I have a mother who read to me every night until I was old enough to read to myself. And a thousand other advantages that cropped up in my life that made it easy for me to be able to put words together. A thousand things that were not conscious effort on my part, they were just luck.

The other day I had this conversation with @AMhairi_Simpson on Twitter. I was trying to proofread something and I complained on #MyWANA that I wished I had a better handle on subjunctive mood. Now if I said that out loud in my house, my husband would say, “You hurt yer what?” Because what the hell, who even knows what that is? Anne-Mhari said that they didn’t teach the finer points of grammar like that in her school, she got it from extensive study of foreign languages. And I agreed. I said, “Everything I know about “whom” I learned in German.” Which is sad.

But where I went to school we struggled with things like “we had went.” And when I say “we” I mean that the teacher struggled with most of the class and the rest of us just sat and waited and wondered why this was so hard and we couldn’t move on. As I child I found this frustrating and it made me angry.

As an adult I understand the tremendous advantages I was given, having come from a home where English was spoken and spoken well. When we were very little, my mother once conjugated the verb “to stink” in the car for our amusement. One summer day, when I was very bored, she taught me how to diagram sentences–just for fun. When I arrived at my first day in kindergarten, having been read to practically every day of my life, how much farther along was I than those kids who didn’t have a single book in their homes?

So any ability that I have in this regard I don’t view as entirely God-given brain wiring, nor entirely from the sweat of my own brow. There’s a lot of luck that went into who I am, too. And for me to look down on someone who didn’t have that luck, as though the luck didn’t matter, seems to me like discounting the blessings I’ve been given. I don’t want to do that, and it bums me out when I watch other people do it.

I’m a YA author. When someone writes to me about writing, I’ve got to find a way to be positive, no matter what kind of grammar I’m looking at. That’s part of my job. And no matter how bad the mechanics are in the letter, the most important part to me is that someone wanted to be a writer enough to write and ask for advice. I respect that. And I will thank them for thinking enough of my work to ask me, I’ll let them know about the critical importance of reading LOTS of books, and also of getting a handle on basic mechanics with recommendations for a few books on grammar and punctuation.

I’ve had to teach my baby and all my pets not to crap on my carpet. They weren’t born knowing that. And when they put their business where it didn’t belong, it wasn’t because they “couldn’t be bothered” to learn what was appropriate. They just hadn’t learned it yet. I think language can be like that. It’s something that comes so naturally to us, that’s so much a part of us, we can’t remember a time when we didn’t know how to use it. We sort of don’t get why someone else is behaving inappropriately. So I’m just sayin’, maybe we could give them a break. Maybe we could appreciate that there were things just handed to us that maybe they’ve never been exposed to. Maybe we could be grateful for our ability to kick ass at learning the things we’ve worked to learn. Maybe we could avoid deriding others for what they lack because we respect our gifts for the blessings they are.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Respect For The Gifts

  1. Despite the fact that I use there’s when I mean there are and I don’t have a clue what a subjunctive mood is, I feel like I’ve got a bit of the instinct. I think that makes it easier for me to write and lucky me. I certainly wouldn’t look down on or tell someone who has the gumption to ask for advice and the gumption to want to write a book that they don’t have a prayer of doing so. With enough drive, people can learn to do anything. With a decent editor, grammar and punctuation can be fixed. Can’t riles me up. 🙂

  2. This reminds of the time you told me about Outliers on my blog. One point in the book is that successful people got that way because they were in situations that fostered their success, just like you. Not everyone had the advantages you did and I think it’s great that you know this.

    We don’t learn at the same speed, we don’t come from the same backgrounds and everyone has an intuitive grasp of something better than others. This is something we should all remember. Thanks for this!

  3. A lot of this hits home for me. I grew up in the rural southeast where most of the people I knew spoke terrible English. My grandparents babysat my brother and me while my mom, a single parent, worked during the day. My grandparents grew up on a farm, and neither of them finished elementary school. So you can guess how I spoke as a child. As did most of the children I went to school with in that area. However, I loved English class, and I found it to be easy for me. In school, almost everything was easy for me. I eventually learned the way I was SUPPOSED to speak, but it was still hard when everyone else around me didn’t speak the correct way. So, yeah, it was a struggle for me to speak correctly, although it wasn’t much of a problem when I was writing. I still find myself saying things that make me cringe. You’ve met me…you’ve probably heard some of them. But I really try. And I try soooo hard not to correct my mother’s speech, but sometimes I can’t help it. I’m lucky that MOST of that “country bumpkin” speech doesn’t come out in my writing. But sometimes, I’ve overcompensated and made my writing too stiff, maybe fearing that I might sound too much like the people I grew up with. I think I’ve learned to stop doing that now. LOL

    You’re right, Susan. You were very, very lucky. And I know you would never be mean to someone who was just seeking advice. And neither would I. I don’t see how anyone could do that.

  4. Brilliant post! I agree with you 100%. I was very blessed in many ways growing up with educated parents who encouraged me to read. But I also went to some crappy-ass schools that didn’t have grammar lessons. So I’ve seen both sides.

    I also like how you see it as part of your job to be as encouraging as possible. I’ve volunteered to judge several contests, and I *try* to have that same attitude. That doesn’t mean lying to the person about their weaknesses (anyone who’s had me for a CP or beta readers knows I don’t hold my punches), but I think criticism can always be given constructively.

  5. Screw correct English! Yay for dialect! 😉 Really, it’s great to know the “right” way to speak, but experience/background in different dialects and ways of speaking can be a GREAT weapon in your writer’s arsenal. It’s all about the voice, so I hear.

    In school, I knew what correct English grammar was supposed to look/sound/write like, but was never taught the grammar jargon. So in senior year English class, we were all chewed out by this old teacher who was like, “WTF, you’re in advanced level and you can’t even define basic grammar terms. WHY?” and then gave us labels for all the stuff we already knew intuitively. And for the record, the only reason I can spell is because my parents made me take spelling quizzes they just made up at home. Some people don’t have the opportunities you talked about; your post is dead-on.

  6. This is actually one of my pet peeves as well. There are plenty of things I “get” that other people do not. Rarely (more and more rare, as I get older), I too fall prey to human nature, thinking to myself, “How could you possibly not get (fill in the blank)?” When I catch that nasty little thought creeping up, I remind myself not everyone is exactly the same, though we all have merit, and that’s okay! Luckily, this all takes place in my head (so I don’t sound too crazy to passerby as I have this little conversation with myself).

    The idea that someone would tell another person, who was merely seeking guidance from someone they obviously respected, to give up on their dream (especially for something as simple as correcting grammar, which can be learned)? It’s so sad. It’s horribly rude and just plain mean! What possible constructive purpose does it serve to engage in what is basically the adult equivalent of mocking/pointing and laughing at the perceived flaws of another person?

  7. Michele Shaw

    This is such an awesome post in every way. It’s really not about writing at all, but about opening our eyes to others and recognizing we have all lived different, unequal lives. If someone asks for my help in any area that I *may* possibly know more about, to look down on that is unforgivable. The act of asking in itself puts people in a vulnerable position. I hate to ask for help, and when someone openly, genuinely supplies me with that help, without judgment, it’s such a relief!

  8. This is an awesome post Susan. A simple helping hand means so much to someone that doesn’t get it. I commented on Jami’s response above, because she was so helpful to me several months ago. Even though I’ve thanked her on numerous occassions, she has no idea how much I appreciate her help on so many writing fronts. I’ve found that 95%+ of writers like to help other writers. I try to help others simply by directing them to writers I know are very good at what they do. Great post.

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  10. I had to train my self not to head-hop, because so many authors I read as I was growing up head-hopped and I thought it was normal.

    You’re right on the money here about being encouraging. A couple of years ago I wrote in a post on my blog about not killing dreams: “We all have the ability to kill someone’s dreams or make them soar. We can trash each other and rejoice when those around us fail, or we can help each other and rejoice when our fellows succeed. Every success is proof-positive that the dream really can be achieved. This doesn’t preclude being honest; I won’t blow sunshine up anyone’s ass and lead them to believe they’re better than they are and have no room for improvement. It would only be my opinion anyway. But I’m not going to be anyone’s dream killer.”

    Who am I to tell someone they can’t be good enough? Language skills and creativity came easy to me; I have a natural bent toward it. My sister taught me how to read and write when I was four, and my first love has always been the written word. But when I started, I sucked (did you read Andrew Mocete’s post today? http://andrewmocete.com/2011/09/01/it-takes-guts-to-suck/). I sucked bigtime, and I had to work hard to not suck. My parents said I’d never do anything with my writing; I couldn’t even finish anything. Yeah, well. They were wrong. And I’m not going to risk being wrong about someone else, either.

    Kudos to you for looking out for the dreamers.

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  13. So … bad grammar is like pooping on the carpet? 🙂 But seriously, excellent post. I continue to be amazed by how truly nice other writers are, no matter what stage they’re at. I feel proud to be a part of such a nurturing community.

    • To some people it seems to be. Because for a lot of us, learning language is as basic as learning potty etiquette. We don’t remember learning it and feel that everyone should know better. Thanks for liking my post!

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