Ten years ago, I was working on a novel that I had begun when I was in high school. I would get up early in the morning and put in a six to eight hour day writing before going to my then-job of waiting tables at a well known Chicago pizzeria.
My days don’t follow this pattern anymore, but I do want to use this anecdote to illustrate two things. The first of these is how I thought about grammar ten years ago compared to how I think about it now. The second is to say something about writing and community.
But let’s start with grammar. Ten or so years ago, I scarcely thought about grammar. I made choices in my novel drafts and in my poems that I felt were more or less “right.” However, when it came time for me to try and send bits of my novel out for potential agents to read, I tried to learn more of the “rules.” I remember coming home from the restaurant late one night, probably one or two in the morning, and reading The Elements of Style on the train. There was more than one late night reveler who was a bit bewildered by my choice of reading material!
But my approach to grammar didn’t really undergo a great change until I went back to school in 2008. The reason for this had nothing to do with my own classwork, and everything to do with the fact that I started tutoring in my university’s writing center and had to talk to other writers about grammar. That was when the real shift took place.
I remember asking myself how I could talk about this thing that I could barely express to myself. I ended up taking multiple courses as I finished my master’s degree that focused on diagramming sentences by various methods (which I grew to love) and the possible approaches to teaching grammar. And I made sure to internalize what I learned because I loved tutoring and I wanted to be able to give writers the help they wanted.
From tutoring I learned that I wanted to teach. And—surprisingly—I found that what I loved to talk about more than anything else was grammar. What I love about grammar isn’t the “rules” (and I use the scare quotes there because I think that conventions is a much more productive term), but rather the idea that grammar changes over time. I find this endlessly fascinating, and never more so than when I am talking to writers in a classroom setting and hearing about all of their experiences learning grammar.
If there is one main takeaway I have learned from working with writers in a variety of contexts, it’s that the use of words like “rules” and “errors” don’t actually help people learn grammar in a productive way. I have said many times that if I had a superpower, it would be to help free people from the negative effects of an error-based approach to grammar instruction. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that clarity of expression is important: I do. I also think that knowing the names of grammatical components is empowering. However, I think an approach that focuses on audience and purpose more than right and wrong is bound to lead to better results and happier writers.
And happier writers make me remember the other thing that I wanted my opening anecdote to illustrate. When I was writing on my own all of those years, what was really missing was a sense of community. I whole-heartedly affirm that writing is a social act. Once I stopped writing on my own and found other writers, I felt more excited about my ideas and more confident about sharing them. So find other writers! They’re out there—and if you don’t know where to look, you can certainly find them at StoryStudio!
Join Jen Finstrom for Grammar for Creative Writers on Wednesday, April 11th!
Jen Finstrom is an instructor in the First-Year Writing Program at DePaul University. Her poetry has appeared in several journals, including RHINO, Cider Press Review, Midwestern Gothic, and NEAT, and she is the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine. You can learn more about grammar and not following the “rules” in her StoryStudio class and on her blog, Grammar Fairy Godmother.