Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Just Because It’s Not Wrong Doesn’t Make It Right

Bonnie’s post on Monday made me want to stretch my literary wings. I guess as I grow older I’m beginning to think there is no reason why I shouldn’t wear the colors I want to wear and cut my own hair and make my own yogurt and write recklessly.

But you have to take the consequences of navy blue and brown; you have to live (at least temporarily) with your own scissors’ results; you have to respect the sensibilities of active cultures.

And in order to take literary risks, you have to know where the boundaries are. What you’re going to push up against before you start shoving.

I had a friend who wrote a hilarious weekly column for a small local newspaper called “Chronicles of a Married Man.” He was married to a loveable nut case so it wasn’t hard to come up with material. And he managed, with the help of an editor and his own “secret weapon,” to write articulately.

An English teacher at a nearby high school invited him to speak to her writing class. Since he was published, she reasoned, he would tell the kids that what she was teaching them was going to pay off eventually. Grammar could turn into greenbacks. That’ll motivate them, she thought. (And I think she had starry-eyed visions of kids writing her “if only I’d known I would have honored you sooner” testimonial letters. Or repenting publicly. Or something.)

I fictionalized the incident, calling my friend Al, in my novel, Latter-day Cipher:
He would be treated as an alumnus dignitary, the teacher promised. He could regale them with stories about writing. They’d have cookies. He could autograph copies of his articles they would have printed.
Despite Al’s protests to the teacher that his writing methods were unorthodox and that she wouldn’t really want him teaching her class, the teacher cajoled, threatened and guilted him into coming.
“How to write.” Al began his presentation to a group of lounging bodies strung like drying seaweed across the desks.“I start typing in whatever I think. Then I go get a drink. Then I come back.”
Eyelids opened a bit.
“I type some more. Then I do my editing with the colors, then I’m done.”
The teacher waved an arm from the back of the class. “Edit with the colors? That sounds interesting, right, class?”
Al could hear the soft snore of a teenager whose face was buried in his arms atop a desk.
“Yeah. With the colors. You know, when you use a word processing program, all the misspelled words have red lines under them. I fix those first.”
“But what about the structure? Topic sentence and supports?”
Heads turned toward the teacher who took this revival as signs of interest. “We learned about topic sentences, right class? And grammar?”
She looked again at Al. “Do you use an outline?”
The class became small undulations across the room.
“You don’t use an outline?”
The teacher’s voice had a crease of irritation in it.
“Nope.”“Okay, go on about the colors.”
“Well, anything that’s not grammatically correct shows up with a green line under it. I just keep typing in stuff or taking out stuff until the green lines go away.”
“Cookies anyone?”
You see the problem, don’t you? I mean, we’re novelists. We know that just because you get rid of all the grammatical errors doesn’t mean you will end up with compelling writing. My friend had such a kooky wife that all he had to do was just relate her escapades. But as he’s the first to admit after trying for years to crank out book-length fiction, just having a grammatically-correct story doesn’t mean you can sustain a novel.

We know, don’t we? That’s why we keep looking for shades of navy blue that will go with brown. That’s why we take the haircutting – and self-editing – risks. And that’s why we have learned to respect the incubation of time, why we don’t send off a novel until we’ve let it sit and culture --or curdle.

I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. What rule-bending risks do you take?


Marian said... much to learn. And I'm almost 60 already.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

The story cracks me up, Latayne!

It's interesting to me the perception my friends have of me now that they know I'm a writer. I had a friend "call me out" for bad grammar on a status update.

"You're a writer. You should know better," she wrote.

"You're a librarian," I replied. "Have you never put a book on the wrong shelf?"

(I was in a snarky mood that day.)

When writing dialogue or in first person, I feel that breaking grammar rules is a great tool. I don't want to write dialogue that isn't authentic. I want my first person POV to reveal who the character is.

I love breaking the rules with my tools. :)

Nicole said...

Lots of fragments. Less commas than proper grammar taught. For starters. ;)

Latayne C Scott said...

Marian, I'm coming up on such a birthday myself, and each day shows me I have more to learn. Ah, challenges!

Susie, you made a good point. Authentic dialogue rarely follows grammar rules, because it is almost always composed of sentence fragments.

Nicole, I've found that I am using fewer commas than were required when I was in college -- and editors are corroborating that choice. Interesting....

Anonymous said...

Latayne, I loved this post. Loved the excerpt. I have an aunt (A Doris Day look-alike) who sounds like your friend's wife. I laugh more with her than anyone, at all the crazy things she's said and done. I worked a few of them into my latest novel in honor of her. This makes me want to hop on a plane to Arizona and spend a few days at her kitchen table.

Amelia said...

Latayne, I just finished that novel and that scene was one of my laugh out loud favorites. I wondered when I read it if it had a real-life history somewhere. I'm learning to relax the rules a bit for myself. Like fragments!

TheLucidPeriod said...

I love incorporating hard-to-take truths into stories. I LOVE ripping off the sheets over the skeletons sitting in the double-door, cobweb-encrusted closets and saying "AHA! See, these problems DO exist!!!"

One thing I'm working on is NOT watering down what I write: making evil what it truly is, and making the good not so flowery (showing the power of redemption through a bad situation).

Tools for not caring what people think about the controversial things are where I'm at right now.

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, I have come to the conclusion that God blesses some authors with great material -- in the form of relatives and friends!

Amelia, I'm so glad you liked Cipher. I put some of my favorite people in it. In this case, I asked the friend's permission because I didn't change any of the facts!

TheLucidPeriod -- on the About Us page, notice that my keyword is controversial!

Latayne C Scott said...

One rule-bending tactic I've been using lately works sometimes, doesn't work others. (Just used it -- leaving out conjunctions.)

(Just used another one: sentence fragment.)


Brant Butler said...

The look on that teachers face was priceless....and I never was invited back.

Latayne C Scott said...

Brant, you're my hero. I hope you are still writing. People need your sense of humor!