Grammar and Good Writing
Grammar facilitates good writing; it does not create it. One can have clean, consistent, even elegant grammar while being vague, obscure, or unnecessarily complicated. One can write spotlessly and vacuously. Good writing, foremost, communicates something; it uses grammar, spelling, and punctuation as tools to this end. The question that remains is whether Kindling says something and whether the errors pull my attention away from or toward that something.
Writing that calls attention to itself or makes the reading more difficult does not necessarily make the writing better or worse or the author more or less lazy. Many writerly ways could be considered distractions: the uncommon dialogue tag “I go,” instead of “I said,” in Jim Shepard’s novel Project X or Emily Dickinson’s excessive em dashes (long dashes). The inflated diction and complex syntax of many bureaucratic and professional publications could also be said to distract from the text in that the reader must work harder to find the content.
But does it serve a purpose? If the goal of a newsletter for a non-profit is to be vague on its stance while gaining social status with donors, the writing tools of elevated diction and complex syntax may help do just that. (Of course, if the goal instead is to share information, then elevated diction and complex syntax hamper rather than help).
If the “distraction” does serve the writing, the question is not whether it is easy to read, but whether it is worth the work of reading it. Does the dialogue tag “I go,” instead of “I said,” show the disaffected youth of Jim Shepard’s novel more than it distracts the reader from the character? In the end, does the extra em dashes of Emily Dickenson reveal more than they divert? In Kindling, the typos and grammatical errors, while they do slow me, ultimately reinforce the themes of the text. The meaning thereby garnered proved worth the work.
Morales tells us directly the motivation for her unusual use of punctuation: “This book was born of desperation…the cost of hiring [the attendants needed due to chronic pain and illness] ourselves comes to $11,000 a month. We used up all of my savings in the first month.” She wrote the book quickly, while bed-ridden, and she quickly published it; the typos and grammatical errors corroborate this.
Readers see, instead of a final, polished text, perhaps the draft just before the final. We see mistakes—perfectly common—that were missed by an editor. If one were writing a novel in which the chronically ill character was writing a memoir, one might choose to leave such errors in place, to show the truth of what the narrator is writing. The body of the text in Kindling then, reflects the body of the author, who, in some sense at least, is also the narrator. The nature of the narrator’s situation, her bodily need and resulting financial need, organically generates moments of transparency in which we are shown the truth of what the narrator is saying.
But Did She Mean to? Intention and Editing
Intentionality and control are key ingredients in this artifact we call literature. Artifacts, including literatures, are, by definition, human-created things, not accidental encounters between humans and keyboards. It is unlikely that Morales intentionally misspelled words and wrote run-on sentences. So how could Morales’s errors add meaning to the text if they are just that: errors? If they are not intentional words placed in particular ways for an intentional effect? If they are, in short, not craft, but accident?
Often I write, just as I talk, in run-on sentences. Writing, however, is like talking, it is not talking. While I talk quickly, I write dozens of drafts. I spend months with each poem. Many essays, including this one, have taken me over a year. In writing, I choose what to keep. To express excitement, I might choose to leave a breathless feeling through long sentences, without allowing them to run-on into grammatically incorrect ones. Literature aims, through skill and care, to craft a piece of work that offers more meaning than does daily conversation. My first draft, stream-of-consciousness, or emotional purging on paper has yet to result in something I want to share with the world. After the initial breathless writing, I ask: does this serve what I am trying to say? I shape and sculpt, and—mostly—prune until the answer is yes.
Writing, in the revision and editing stages, is careful, thoughtful, and deliberate. But that does not mean that the anomalies are intentional. Two years ago, I attended a seminar on elegies by Dan Bellm. We were given a packet of poems and each one seemed to break a literary norm. Grief, as it was expressed in these poems, skewed the writing. Mary Jo Bang’s You Were You Are Elegy, for example, with only 47 lines, bubbles over with clichés and general statements: “Fragile like a child,” “Things Never Last Forever,” “Life is Experience,” “Everything Was My Fault,” “sometimes it was wonderful/ And sometimes it was awful,” and “True beauty is truly seldom.” The excess of platitudes in this poem overwhelms me into the feeling of grief: everything has already been said, and all that is said is pointless and profound. The use of clichés, the breaking of this most fundamental writing rule, is just one of the tools that Mary Jo Bang uses to let grief enter the reader.
Did Mary Jo Bang sit down at her writing desk and think: which writerly norms can I eschew in order to show this state of grief? I don’t know Mary personally, but I doubt it. There is a good chance that, on the contrary, she had to argue with, ignore, or smother that pompous inner-critic (one does not write clichés or platitudes or otherwise over-dramatize grief), in order to let this particular grief come through in the only words that could conjure it.
And isn’t everything suddenly a cliché, a platitude, a meaningless blot of guttural sounds when the one you love has been lost? I did not know this, not the way I know it now, before reading this poem. Though it may seem spontaneous, truth such as that evoked in Bang’s poem rarely, if ever, comes out complete in a first draft. Yet, without that initial breathless writing, the weeping writing, the voice caught in the net of your throat writing, the truth might never come to light at all. When it does, it is less a matter of intention as a matter of allowing the unintentional to surface and fighting the urge to push it back under.
Adherence to writerly norms allows for smoother communication, yes. So, too, does the bending and breaking of norms when it brings the reader closer to the meaning. Every writer I admire breaks literary norms in order to say what needs to be said. Or, rather, when what needs to be said comes out, the writers I admire choose to keep it.
Morales likely did not “mean to” add two periods at the end of one sentence. But often enough inspiration strikes while we write in a state of concentration and, later, we choose to keep it. Did Morales choose to keep the two periods, the “spin,” or other typographical inconsistencies? What if we imagine that she did?
If Morales had a highly skilled editor friend, this editor would certainly have pointed out her errors. In which case, instead of assuming the laziness of the author, I would assume that the author had evoked a state of hurriedness, pain, and deprivation and, in doing so, the errors organically appeared. I would assume that, upon reflection, she decided to keep the errors, perhaps even inflate them, in order that the structure of the text might reflect the content. I might read the text as avant-garde, experimental, post-modern. In the same way that Mary Jo Bang’s poem elucidates, though clichés, a state of grief which is her theme, I might say that the random fragmentation, unique use of punctuation, and seemingly erroneous phrases of Kindling elucidate—through form—the dis-eased body that is the central theme of the text.
Yet, Morales’s misspellings likely emerged in a way similar to Bang’s clichés. The difference is the assumption—likely true—that the first was less edited than the second. I’m not sure it makes any sense, aesthetically or ethically, to say that the first is an accident and the second is craft when the difference between the two is most likely the amount of access to an editor, time, or money.
It would be a mistake to generalize the points I am making here. I am not saying that spelling errors equal craft or that errors of grammar represent depth of content. I am not even suggesting that, generally speaking, typos and grammatical errors can be correlated to things such as socio-economic privilege, illness, or disability. Generally speaking, I would prefer that much less writing be published and much more care be given to the writing itself. In the specific case of Kindling, however, the typos and grammatical errors add to, rather than detract from, the meaning. When I read and then re-read Kindling, the errors themselves revealed meaning that I would not have otherwise found there.