Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Today's topic is to discuss something that others tell me I do well. Easy. I write.

My ability to express myself seems innate. I have always been good at writing, but I have also had a long apprenticeship, as I have mentioned before.

I read, and reading helps to introduce you to different styles of writing, as well as new vocabulary. One good thing my horrific adviser did was to tell me to subscribe to The New Yorker to improve myself. I have now subscribed for nearly 20 years, and I can always find elegant turns of phrase and delicious egg-head words in it. Reading is a healthy addiction.

I write regularly, and always have. Practice is where I stretch my wings, make mistakes, erase and start again. I have done this privately in a journal, in drafts of academic papers, and in letters, sent and unsent. I bemoan the trend toward sloppiness that e-mail and texting has engendered. I often post blog entries without proper proofreading (THE HORROR!), but I have learned that it is fine to go back and fix things. I needn't have a heart attack when I discover my errors. I am only human, after all.

I have had a rigorous schooling in English grammar and usage. When I was a schoolgirl in England, we would have intense weekly lessons in the parts of speech. For the year-end English exam when I was eleven, we had to memorize a whole book's worth of grammar, First Aid in English. I remember that my family was in the Hague while my dad had meetings with cartographers from other NATO countries, and I, ever the good student, was diligently working away at grammar exercises. My parents went out one night, and a local teen-age girl babysat me in the hotel. My parents thought my grammar book belonged to her, and left it in the hotel for her to pick up. I about lost it when I found out the next day, after we'd moved on to Amsterdam--all the valuable study time my idiot parents had cost me! I was irate for days.

In seventh grade I learned to diagram sentences, the equivalent of gross anatomy class for writers. When you understand how things are put together, you can see more quickly and clearly where words, sentences, or paragraphs need to be tweaked and adjusted. Sometimes when I am trying to muddle through one of Henry James's late works and am stuck in the mud of one his endless sentences, I will cut through all the florid description and look simply for the subject and verb, then build it up from there.

When I went to high school, I had to do a daily writing exercise called "Outside Reading" or "O.R." In the morning English class we would be assigned 15 to 25 pages of whatever book we were reading, and we'd have to write a grammatically correct synopsis of those pages in 30 words or less, to be handed in by 1 p.m. Any lapses in grammar would be duly marked in red by our teachers, and we were required to make corrections and resubmit the O.R. before the end of the day. I usually got things right the first time, but there were occasions when I didn't.

Over the years I have studied many different languages, which have their own flow and vocabularies; this knowledge informs the way in which I use English. I love words that I've picked up from Irish, particularly "craic." I still read very regularly in French and have found writers, such as Camus and Duras, to whom I return again and again, enchanted by the deceivingly simple way in which they communicate very complex ideas. After learning Greek and Latin, I could see ways in which the Classical world still inflects our ways of communication.

I have worked, and continue to work, as an editor. I can go in with a surgical eye and see quickly where arguments can be tightened and made lucid. I was a technical editor in Silicon Valley during the Internet boom at the end of the millenium and made a bundle while working alongside people even more exacting than I. The Chicago Manual and Elements of Style are on my desk, within easy reach.

I have had some truly gifted writers as friends who have shared their advice and beautiful prose with me. One of my exes is an academic and a professor of linguistics; I met him when he was writing his Ph.D. at Cambridge. Andrew was educated at one of the most prestigious boarding schools in England, went to Cambridge as an undergraduate to get degrees in French and German, and then decided to change to finish his Bachelor's in English. He wrote a brilliant undergraduate thesis on James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, which is no small feat for a 21-year-old. He wrote his Ph.D. thesis about a 19th-century grammarian of Norwegian and the politics of language and nationalism. He is fluent in five languages and has published prolifically. From the first, I was awed by his command of English--and not just because he's English. He could draw from a vocabulary light years beyond mine, and he wrote me the best letters I've ever received. I remember trying so very hard to impress him with my writing and making a muck of it on more than one occasion, but he is also blessed with a big heart and kind sense of humor. He never made fun of me for my mistakes--or at least not for long. When I write for people, he is my ideal audience, and still one of the people I hope to please.

There are very few things for which I accept compliments, but writing is one of them. I suppose it is something over which I have control, and something that I also think I do well. My writing is part of me, and yet separate enough that when people attack what I've said, I don't take it as personally as I would if they were savaging my appearance or character.

Now if only I could get my act together and write that book! People have been giving me wickedly great ideas for chapter headings, and my life is certainly much, much more dramatic and salacious than some soap operas. Really. Then again, laying myself bare is something quite dangerous. Ah, those adoption issues...


Real Daughter said...

You are an excellent writer!! I am atrocious, lol. Diagramming sentences is as foreign to me as nuclear physics. I am the product of a shitty inner city school system, but that is no excuse. Maybe someday I will finish my education....well, as soon as I am finished paying tuition for the girls!!

Love you, and I owe you a phone call!!

Amanda Woolston said...

I love your writing! <3

Unknown said...

Yes, you do write very well.