Writing to Save

” People are motivated to write for a variety of reasons, but it’s the child writer who has figured out, early on, that writing is about saving your soul.”

— The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, by Betsy Lerner



Elements of Style

I posted on facebook the other day, “Having breakfast with Strunk & White,” and some people thought my breakfast was a very fine wine while others insisted, “Your style is great. Why are you reading about it?”

Apparently, not everyone has taken an English composition class, tried to understand poetry, had a father who collected books galore, or  searched for top punctuation books online. Apparently, not everyone has heard of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

The illustration version is beautiful; yes, I must be an English major to say a punctuation book is beautiful, but Maira Kalman did a great job. The pictures spice up the black and white pages, and in a creative way, they explain some of the rules. They make me laugh. They are colorful, out there, a little Picasso thrown in beside the Hemingway and Whitman. Art at its finest.

The rules are to the point. Some of them are obvious. Don’t make two independent clauses one sentence with just a comma in the middle. Everyone should know this. It’s like a run on sentence with a little bump in the middle, not enough to stop the train of thought and tell it, “There’s a new thought coming up.” Some of them, for me, were new or at least a little rusty. “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Um. Okay. If I should.

More than a punctuation handbook, Strunk and White define style, a much stickier part of writing. Anyone can say, “Don’t cut a sentence in two.” That is common sense. What doesn’t make sense is, “When can I break the rules?” When can I, as the author, throw something out there, something uncommon, something unheard of, something that no one has used before?

Strunk and White say, “Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?”

It’s next to impossible, isn’t it? Yet S & W attempt it. Or they offer hints and ideas of what good style looks like. I think style is half-learned, half-given, and half-fought for, yet their thoughts are very helpful, and I plan to keep them in mind.

Also, this book will join my library shelves someday–illustrations and all–and I plan on referring to it during my own career and recommending it to any careers watching my shaky footsteps. 🙂

Breakfast with Strunk and White

I guess it’s not typical to have a Breakfast Picnic, but I was in the mood, the sun was calling, and the green beans needed eating, so I had one. An orange, a glass of milk, and a handful of green beans are perfect for a Saturday morning picnic, no?

Strunk and White joined me; it was a delightful conversation, and I discovered some new tidbits about punctuation.

According to these two gentlemen, the following principles are the most important “that govern punctuation. They should be so thoroughly mastered that their application comes second nature.”

Rule 3: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.” Second nature. Done. Boom.

Rule 4: “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.” Thank goodness I learned this one in high school!

Rule 5: “Do not join independent clauses with a comma.” Also understood in high school. Boom. 🙂

Rule 6: “Do not break sentences in two.” (“In other words, do not use periods for commas.”)

I believe these are pretty straight forward, pretty understood, and pretty basic. I think I can handle them. Yes?

Also, here are some of Strunk and White’s thoughts on colons and dashes:

“The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”

“A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.”

Mr. Strunk and Mr. White, it was delightful dining with you under the Missouri Saturday sky, and I do hope to chat again very soon!

British Author Tells Grammar’s Story

It was a very cute little book, one that I actually found myself falling in love with as I turned each page. Humorous, witty, and very insightful, Lynne Truss doesn’t leave any question unanswered when it comes to grammar; but she does lay it out in an amazingly clear, beautiful style. Eats, Shoots and Leaves becomes a story of grammar, and if you argue, “That’s not possible!”,  let me tell you, it actually is! 🙂

Besides the fact that she is from Britain and so the punctuation and spelling are slightly different from ours (which she mentions and clarifies), her humor and scope of vocabulary is astonishing. Sometimes I feel like I am reading a well-written ten-year-old’s term paper; it’s not that it is simple–it is that it is fresh, new, exciting, and not at all boring.

I thought periods were frightfully dull, but after reading her book, I am learning about the dance punctuation plays with words so a reader can hear the rise and fall of energy and emotion as well as the writer. The length of pauses bring life into a simple paragraph of writing: one for a comma; two for a semi-colon; three for a colon; four for a period–and yet, I may be getting her descriptions completely mixed up because I am just remembering and writing about the book; I’m not copying word for word what she said; I am throwing out here what my memory learned.

Like about the uses and brilliance behind semi-colons and colons! I had no idea! Did you? No idea at all. Now I stick them liberally in all my writings: and I am afraid I have no idea how to use them anymore! 🙂

It’s great fun! Reading a grammar book and coming away with more inaccuracies than before . . .  I am afraid Truss would be horrified. Her seventh sense (the one that finds advertisements misspelled and billboards unpunctuated) would probably explode in shock. She meant her book to be a guide; I made it into a liberator.

She wrote it to catch people who punctuated inaccurately; I may become her top villain.

Yet I won’t trade my beginning struggle with correct punctuation and go back and unread Truss’s book. It may have given me confusion, but first, and overall, it gave me the world.

Opening a new expanse for me into the heart of Punctuation Capitol (no pun intended 🙂 ), I have been intimately introduced to every punctuation mark out there (I think every one, anyway), and I am delighted to have met them. I will be using them all frequently, whether correctly or incorrectly, from this point out.

Instead of enemies, Eats, Shoots and Leaves taught me that punctuation is and are friends.

Flip Flop Strunk and White with Lynne Truss

Can a Grammar book actually resemble a piece of fiction? No. Unless you are reading Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss, and in that case it is done right adorable.

(I mentioned I was reading Strunk and White’s book last post, and right now I am flip-flopping between the two because neither of these grammar books should be read together in one afternoon–although Truss’s book definitely carries the fun factor! It’s entertaining!)

Okay, so maybe informational, humorous, and well-written are better words for Eats, Shoots, and Leaves–it is supposed to be a grammar book–but still, I keep coming back to “cute.” It’s just little, and red, and large print, and filled with the funniest anecdotes. Truss either had a lot of children, too many monkeys in her life, or just a really overdeveloped sense of humor. Either way, I don’t mind–it is highly entertaining.

For instance, she begins her book with the seventh sense. Whoever has heard of the seventh sense? Dogs supposedly have a sixth sense, but the seventh sense is reserved strictly for humans–the type of human who cringes every time they pass a college dorm sign wrongly spelled, an advertisement with a misplaced comma, or a publication incorrectly edited.

That is about all I have to say about the introduction, but I do highly recommend it. It’s an easy read and well worth any writer’s time, either for instruction or pure entertainment

White on Strunk

Did you know William Strunk Jr. taught E. B. White at Cornell University? I didn’t before today.

Furthermore, did you know that Strunk wrote the original “The Elements of Style,” using it in his classroom as early as 1919? Nope. I didn’t know that either.

It wasn’t until 1957 that this little textbook became Strunk and White’s Elements of Style when White was commissioned to revise it for the general public.

Today it is the most well known, I would say, style guide. Even students who are not English majors have heard of it.

I guess I am about to discover why.

Oh, and for the record, it is the fourth book on my “To Read” list! YAH! 🙂



Don’t Forget the Name of the Dog

I don’t think I realized what I would learn when I opened Clark’s pages.

I was reading to check his book off my list. For no other reason. Yet I discovered nonfiction humor–I found an encourager, and a way to really make this type of life happen.

Annie Dillard introduced me to the writing life, but I believe it is Clark who has really handed me, as his favorite analogy goes, the toolbox. I have so many ideas now, waffling through my brain and demanding my attention and focus.

Because of them I guess I will have to stop this post and go onto something else, something hands-on, something like writing with my feet, something like drafting, dropping gold coins, climbing up and down the ladder of abstraction. So much to do . . .

Which, I guess, is my question really. What is to be done? What door shall I open to start down the pathway of what needs to be done? Will I set back in my plastic chair, watching Barnabas swim round and round his bowl (yes, I bought a fish), and just think about what I learned. Or will I actually set out my toolbox and use them, practicing and practicing, until they are rusty? Until I have to buy new ones? Until  Clark’s 50 tools become part of my writing life too? What direction will I go? What direction will you go?

I must end with Roy Peter Clark’s words themselves. They are too good to pass up.

“Own these writing tools. They now belong to you. Keep them sharp. Share them with others. Add your own. Take pride in your craft. Join a nation of writers. And never forget to get the name of the dog” (245).

Tool 50 ~ Own the tools of your craft.

“Build a writing workbench to store your tools.”

This tool is Clark’s last, and it’s where he explains the magic behind magical writing. Clark says, “I thought great writing was the work of magicians. . . This was magic, the work of wizards–people different than you and me” (241).

But then, the teacher, Donald Murray, taught him back in 1983 about a workbench–the workbench. There is a method to the madness.

1. Idea — be curious. Find the stories happening in reality around me.

Explore — Be a modern-day explorer and see what’s out there.

2. Collect — I love doing this, and I think it is the reason I like being around people. They are so comical! Their quips of humor, bits of conversation, things they will say or won’t say, the cars they drive . . . so humorous! So “collect words, images, details, facts, quotes, dialogue, documents, scenes, expert testimony, eyewitness accounts, statistics, the brand of the beer, the color and make of the sports car, and, of course, the name of the dog” (242). I must learn to write beyond my fingers. I must learn to write with my feet.

3. Focus — “What is your essay about? No, what is it really about” (242)?

Select the best stuff — So I did all the research. Now I must only put in the facts that are necessary.

Recognize an order — A sonnet or epic? What form am I going to use?

4. Draft — Use whatever is my method to write. Some people draft and revise at the same time (mostly me!) while others draft and then revise. Either way, draft.

5. Clarify — Spend hours changing “the” to “a.” Get the words right so others can see them too.

For the hands-on writers like me, grab a huge piece of paper and “draw a diagram of your writing process. Use words, arrows, images, anything that helps open a window to your mind and method” (244). Organize this writing toolbox like a box of paint tools or car tools. Label them, lay them out, categorize your thinking.

Clark explains, “So in my focus box, I keep a set of questions the reader may ask about in the story. In my order box, I have story shapes such as the chronological narrative and the gold coins. In my  revision box, I keep my tools for cutting away useless words” (244).

So for you toolbox, why not start with Roy Peter Clark’s 50 tools?

Tool 49 ~ Learn from your critics.

Can I say that this tool has so much more to do with life than just writing?

It’s about interacting with people.

“Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.”

Instead of one side winning and the other side losing the debate, let’s have a conversation. Clark calls conversation–“give and take” (236).

Don’t defend your work. You know there are rough edges yet. Be open to discuss them.

And explain yourself. Clark explains how one reader didn’t like his short chapters in his “Three Little Words.” Yet that is the reason others liked it so much. He wanted to keep it short and sweet. He wanted to capture the battle between life and death in as few words as possible. He wanted readers to understand it is like to experience and die through AIDS. So he explained his purpose to the critic. Maybe the critic never understood, but at least Clark had explained his thought pattern.

Also, and personally this is the one that gets me the most, a lot of critiques are just a matter of taste, and “there can be no arguing about matters of taste” (237).

I love Clark’s run through. “I think Moby Dick is too long. You think abstract art is too abstract. My chili is too spicy. You reach for the Tabasco” (237).


So just explain. And if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. At least maybe you helped them understand just a little. And probably, you learned something in the process. 🙂

Tool 48 ~ Limit self-criticism in early drafts.

“Turn it loose during revisions.”

I can’t believe I am almost done! Only three more tools to go!!

Clark talks about Gail Godwin, someone who wrote, “The Watcher at the Gate.” Apparently, this watcher-person, to Godwin, was a “restraining critic who lived inside me” (233). It blocked her creativity and was altogether annoying. Coming directly from Godwin herself:

“It is amazing the lengths a Watcher will go to keep you from pursuing the flow of your imagination. Watchers are notorious pencil sharpeners, ribbon changers, plant waterers, home repairers and abhorrers of messy rooms or messy pages. They are compulsive looker-uppers. They cultivate sel-important eccentricities they think are suitable for ‘writers.’ And they’d rather die (and kill your inspiration with them) than risk making a fool of themselves.”

So find someone in your life who is pure encouragement–a Barnabas. Someone who can boost you up and say, “You’re awesome!”

Clark continues a little later on, “For Godwin, weapons against the Watcher include such things as deadlines, writing fast, writing at odd times, writing when you’re tired, writing on cheap paper, writing in surprising forms from which no one expects excellence” (234).

And I would write more about this tool, but I can’t honestly relate it too my life. Perhaps my Watchers would be frantically running around doing nothing so I can’t write . . . or buying stuff . . . or eating food . . . which I don’t think is exactly what Godwin is talking about . . . not sure.

I do know I struggle with creativity sometimes. Actually, frequently. Maybe it is time to slay some Watchers. Just an idea actually. A modern-day Jabberwocky? Hmmmm . . .