Going Full Grammando

My precious grammar and composition books from Room 605. Photo by Walter Bowne

For as long as I can remember I have always despised grammar.

I recall many headaches in middle school in the 1980s, reading (not reading) those fat green grammar books. Mrs. Patterson tried her best with me, but I refused to be a grammarian. Can one even read grammar books? It’s more like study, right?

I was a mere pupil, transparent, taking up space in an eyeball. Grammar, then, studied in isolation, like a raw kidney on a dissection table, did not set my mind to actively learn the function and structure of the English language.

It sems funny, looking back, but although I hated grammar — it seemed like mathematics — but that’s a whole other bottle of Advil — I did love writing. I possessed a wonderful imagination, and I composed three short novels by the time I was in ninth grade: “The Case of the Disappearing Rock Stars,” “Strange Happenings on Planet Mole,” and “Mystery Island.”

I would handwrite these stories, and my mom would type them out on half-sheets of typing paper, and then I would bind the pages together like a real book, and fabricate truly horrible covers and back covers for each. I was the protagonist, of course, for all of these comic novellas, and my girlfriend in all of these novels was named, and I am sorry — Lola Bust.

Again, remember my age and judge me tenderly.

Just because a student struggles with grammar and spelling doesn’t make that student a poor writer

It was not until early in high school that I started my big, mature project: “The Devil’s Calling.” That was 1983. It concerned a second Russian Revolution in the future and dealt with such weighty topics as artificial genetic engineering, fascism, space stations, global politics, revolutionaries, realpolitik, and love and lust and betrayal — and some really horrible love scenes. I also predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Most importantly, I had to satisfy my adolescent fantasies. Sitting and composing in a room all day, without a thought or care to homework or grammar or geometric formulas, was not the way to charm the ladies. But I wanted to become a writer — even though I still hated grammar.

The Russian novel, in four years, was finished: 600 pages. Are there grammar mistakes in that thing? Oh, yes. But is there magic and personality and vision and voice: well, I hope so.

Yet, during high school and early college, I was not a big reader — besides a large chunk of the Hardy Boy Canon. While I still hated grammar, I loved the mystique and prestige of being a writer. Did I possess that genuine love of literature yet? Oh, no.

My love of someone else’s words would not come until midway through college when I changed my major to English.

Although I will not use the word hate now, writing at fifty-one, there’s no love lost between the two of us. I admire, respect and so much fear grammar, like handing in a research paper to a big-name professor. “Hey you go, Dr. Bloom.”

Now, with a Master’s degree in English, teaching AP Langauge and Composition, journalism, and English III Honors for over twenty years, as well as being published in over forty publications, well before my days here on Medium, one would hope that I have mastered Little, Brown and Company. Shouldn’t it be called now Little, Brown, and Bowne?

No.

We often know the grammar error in sound rather than by the rule

I usually know what is wrong when I see it or hear it. I know how to correct it, but I often find myself having to look into one of those grammar books for the correct rule or word. Or my Chicago Manual of Style for numbers or the AP Stylebook. And that’s okay.

This was of course before everything was online — and, well, Grammarly — which isn’t always correct, right?

Back in 1992, as a student teacher in a “rough” high school, teaching seniors, I realized how much I had to learn about teaching grammar. I had one class of Basic Skills English. I wanted to teach the literature classes and creative writing, but as the Fates and Fortune would dictate, I got incarcerated with students only slightly younger than me — and with no interest in the Language of Shakespeare.

I had to relearn grammar quickly. As an undergraduate, my only “C” in my English coursework came with the dreaded American English Grammar — and diagramming sentences from James Joyce. “Hey, James Joyce is Irish!” I said. “Can we do Hemingway?”

My cooperating teacher said, “I suspect grammar is not your forte.”

I confessed that “C.” Grammar was definitely Mrs. Ippolito’s fortress. I was consigned to the camps outside the castle.

My poor grammar skills stem from a lack of patience — I would write poems instead of learning about gerund or participle phrases. I would think of a catchy first line to a short story while I should have been studying the difference between who and whom — maybe not, but that’s what I was thinking. That rule still bugs me. It bugs me so much, these rules, rules, rules, I have been studying, on Audible, Anne Curzan’s English Grammar Boot Camp on The Great Courses.

It’s actually great. And where I picked up the phrase “Going Grammando!”

While I would win a fiction contest at college for my story story “Ten Billion Footsteps,” updated now on Medium as “130,815,769 Footsteps,” I still could not point out a restrictive or non-restrictive phrase — now I can ace that.

And the dangling participle or passive voice and the misplaced modifier and subject-verb agreement. I was a young lad of 20 then, and I’ve had 30 years to practice my grammar skills.

I remember pointing out James Joyce and William Faulkner and ee cummings to undermine the importance of grammar. I trusted my editors — mostly my friends, and later, a few editors, my mother-in-law, my wife, and my daughters.

I later learned that Herman Melville was a horrible speller. Couldn’t I just rely on my editors? Like the way, I rely on my wordsmith daughter Nancy now?

I know that writers can break the rules — like an intentional fragment — only after writers have mastered the rules. It’s like knowing how to construct the foundation of a house.

Grammar is like a skeleton that keeps all the vitals up and working

Grammar is the essential support system — the skeleton — the structure of the language. Every game has rules. Every sport has rules. In order to communicate, we must follow such rules to command our message.

In graduate school, my study of rhetoric greatly helped with the structure. In fact, my AP students know apply anaphora, epistrophe, antithesis, syllogisms, and so much more.

Another problem I’ve always had as a writer, even to this day, is a lack of critical revision. I never have writer’s block. I have a hundred topics a day I want to write — and like Dickens, I can write various stories at the same time — like how he was writing The Pickwick Papers, Barnaby Rudge, and Oliver Twist — all at the same time, while also a journalist. This was when he was only like, what, 26?

I can write quickly. Some lines just come magically. Some arrive as fresh morning dew on my face. But I am extremely impatient. I write a story — and I want that story published and off my drafts, so I can move on to the next story.

Unlike some writers who think rewriting is unmanly, I’m not like that at all. I just have Overfocused ADD (diagnosed at 50). Like writing, I have five or six home projects spinning at the same time — like some juggling act, and it’s exciting.

But I realize that revision means re-seeing. I now record my stories, upload them to Anchor.fm, and listen in the car on Spotify. Fitzgerald would do this with his writing — and if you listen to the lyricism of The Great Gatsby, you know what I’m talking about

Just yesterday, on a lovely drive, my wife listened to a narrative of mine about a risky road we took in Arizona for a travel magazine. She loved it but suggested taking out the last 400–500 words at the end — and ending when we arrived safely in Jerome, Arizona.

She was right. And my readers, hopefully, will thank me. Or thank my editor-wife.

After all, my mantra in class is “omit needless words” — the commandment from Strunk and White, right. I famously say “Cut the fat!” Essays that clock at 2600 words can easily be shortened to 1700 words.

Writing for newspapers with a word limit of 650 words has also taught me about being concise — cutting needless prepositional phrases, adjectives, and adverbs, and words like rather, pretty, really, and very — what Strunk and White call qualifiers. “They are leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

And according to one editor in New York, who helped me greatly with a short story, it seems I like imagery and ambiance way too much. The first whole page was deleted — thank God!

Writers influence the style of other writers but learn to find your voice

I eventually learned to stagger my sentence structure. I went from a Hemingway Style to a Henry Jamesian Style to a James Joycian Style. Then to a Vonnegut-Hunter S. Thompson-Thomas Woolfe-thing.

Then somewhere at the end of graduate school, I found my own

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