For Heather Askeland (1980-2014)
Typos and other Attractions
I am sitting in my backyard reading Kindling: Writings on the Body, a collection of essays and poems on illness and healing. I am a third of the way into the book when, somewhere inside a sentence, I lose its meaning. I stretch my legs out, go back to the beginning of the sentence, and find the error that tripped me: “It feels like burning metal is piercing a spot half way between my spin [sic] and my hip, and nothing will make it stop.” This is not the first typo. It will not be the last.
As I read those first chapters, grammatical errors, like quarters into a slot, dropped into my awareness. The errors piled until, by the time I find the word “spin” where “spine” should be, I recognize it not as anomaly, but as pattern. In the moment of pattern recognition, my first thought is not of the human who feels the pierce of burning metal, but of the text and its incorrectness. I write in my notebook: distracting. I will use this in my annotation, I think. And perhaps my first thought should be critical, since I am paying $8,000 per semester to learn, among other things, how to analyze texts critically.
As I sit reading this book for the first time, the errors disappoint me. I am disappointed because I want nothing to pull the attention of the reader away from the importance of what is being said. I want the next five generations or more to read this book slowly and carefully, drawn in, as I am, by the simple and painful truth of it.
Kindling is a spider’s web. No strand is not connected to all others. Nothing is too base or too complex: bowels and adult diapers, neuro-disruptors and eptileptogens. Kindling is a treatise on collective healing and healthcare inequalities. Nothing is severed: not carcinogens, pesticides, or weapons of mass destruction. Morales writes: “What our bodies…require in order to thrive is what the world requires. If there is a map to get there it can be found in the atlas of our skin and bone and blood, in the tracks of neurotransmitters and antibodies.” Kindling is a geopolitical map, a body-sized map, of the world.
Morales takes little for granted: not her own health (her ability to get out of bed to go to the bathroom), or cultural beliefs (that each illness comes from a single cause and has a single cure). Following her cue, I begin to search for my own premises, the premises of the institutions and the social fabric in which I write, and question them.
I ask myself if the errors could mean something other than my quickly jumped to assumption of the author’s laziness and, by extension, the inferior quality of the work. Certainly, typos and grammatical errors are distracting. Another way to say that is: typos and grammatical errors are attracting. They attract attention to the fact that this book is a bunch of letters once typed up by some human sitting at a desk or lying in a bed. A typo is distracting, then, to the extent that something other than the typo should be paid attention to.
One of the underlying arguments against typos is that a text should call the reader’s attention to the themes of the text itself and cull anything else. With the first sentence, writers hope to pull in the reader by the shirt collar and whisper: this is what we’re talking about. In Kindling, the errors, among other things, pull my attention toward the author, her body, and the physical world in which the text was written, the same world in which I sit, atop a wooden worm-bin in my backyard, with the author’s book in my hands. Kindling is an embodied memoir-style text exploring the physically interconnected world in which we live. Could it be that the errors themselves illustrate this?
Communication: The Point of Writerly Norms
Before I explore what meaning errors may offer, I want to be clear: I am not recommending, nor do I think Morales would recommend, that we writers be sloppy with our work. Whether it is the premise, the structure, or the nuts and bolts, this is our work and it is important that we do it well. Grammar, spelling, and other literary conventions are necessary for writing in the same way that culture is necessary for human survival.
What if, each time I greeted someone new, we had to decide if we should shake hands, hug, or sniff each other? If we made up every single thing new each time, we’d die of exhaustion—if not from complete loss of meaning. When I first meet someone, I usually offer a firm handshake. If it is a culturally Deaf person, I offer a hug. In the countryside of Guatemala, I offer a loose hold on the fingers, and two small shakes, or, if the woman has dough on her hands from making tortillas, I hold lightly at her wrist. In these movements, I communicate something—a greeting.
If I were to firmly grip in both my hands the hand of a Guatemalan woman, or go in for a bear hug when introduced to a non-Deaf person at an office meeting, I would not be communicating the neutral greeting that is my aim. If a goal of writing is to communicate—and I believe that it is—then conventions facilitate writing.