31 May 2011

Grammar Nazi

I really, really hate giving presentations. I get horrible anxiety, blush until my cheeks nearly light on fire, and have serious problems looking anywhere except my feet. But this time was an exception.

When the signup sheet had gone around my copyediting class two weeks before, I nearly slammed my fist down on the paper from being so excited. Each person in the class needed to choose one idiom that is usually used incorrectly and research the history and etymology of the phrase, determining how it is supposed to be used. And my number one pet peeve, grammatical or otherwise, was staring up at me on the page.

I took my place at the front of the classroom, all eyes on me. I picked up the black dry erase marker and carefully wrote two sentences across the board, one on top of the other:

            Could care less

            Couldn’t care less

I pointed to the first sentence. “Who thinks this is correct?” Not a single person raised a hand. I breathed a sigh of appreciation. These were my people. When I pointed to the second sentence, every hand went up. I went on to explain how exactly the idiom had been skewed over the years, and how the first phrasing was now used so frequently that it could be considered correct just because people accept it.

My words were met with horrified eyes and open mouths. How could such an obvious mistake really be deemed correct? And just because people usually say it that way? It’s still wrong, right?

My boyfriend, a stand-up comic, has a joke about me. It starts with, “I love my girlfriend, but…she’s kind of a grammar nazi.” He stole the term from me. I’m self-proclaimed. I don’t hold back if he makes a grammar mistake or pronounces a word wrong. He’s probably the only person I feel comfortable doing this to, because I know he won’t get angry about it. He’ll just put me into his act if I correct the spelling in his text messages or keep saying “What?” until he stops pronouncing “escape” like it has an x in it.

My first reading selection for 2011 was The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson. I spied it in the writing reference section at work (my most frequented browsing spot), and it seemed right up my alley. It’s a nonfiction book about two friends who go across the country armed with markers and white-out, correcting typos. It seemed somewhat fantastical—imagine being able to fix those errors that we see every day—on signs, billboards, flyers, everywhere—those errors that so often go unnoticed. I’m far too introverted to do the sort of things that these typo eradicators were able to do, but I started noticing these everyday errors more and more. I even fixed a few handwritten notes that I found at work—most noticeably drawing a thick blue line through a misplaced letter e in the word “recycling” on the cardboard box where we threw plastic bottles left by customers.

I take my grammar knowledge seriously. I was actually offended when my professor for Early British Novel told the class, “Don’t use semicolons. You don’t know how to use them. So just don’t do it.” I was so offended that I put one in the first paragraph of my first paper. Of course she had no problem with it—it was used correctly. The semicolon and I have had a rough relationship. I hated it in the beginning. A comma and a period—how pretentious is that? But as time went by, I came to realize the beauty of it. Two complete sentences, able to stand on their own, are linked together. They aren’t really separate at all. Semicolons bond sentences together; they bring the love into writing, like a matchmaker for sentences.

I also have an intense love affair with ellipses. Particularly in dialogue. Why say “he paused” when you can have a perfectly crafted, real pause within the quotation marks? Dot. Dot. Dot. Your eyes slow down as you follow the line; you pause with the speaker. And then the words pick up again; your eyes lift up and see the dialogue. Three perfect dots.

My tragic flaw, however, must be fragments. I love them. I believe that a well-placed fragment can make you think. One or two words have the ability to convey so much more emotion than a full sentence. I sometimes follow the belief that writing should reflect the way we think and speak. And every sentence uttered isn’t a perfect one. Sometimes we only say a few words. Sometimes we start a sentence with a conjunction or end it with a preposition. But it has to make sense; it has to feel natural.

So maybe I’m not as strict about grammar as I always thought. I’ll make exceptions if it fits in with the voice of whatever I’m writing. That doesn’t stop me from noticing errors. Just the other day I found myself staring at the menu at a seafood restaurant whose appetizer list boasted their onion rings—a whole “basket full.” I cringed but resisted pulling out a pen from my purse.

The onion rings were delicious.

26 May 2011

Full Circle

May 25, 2011 3:45 PM

It’s seventy degrees out. Sunny. A brilliant blue sky with no clouds in sight. My cat Gizmo is sitting in the open window, his tail twitching feverishly at the prospect of the outside world. I’m on top of my bed, legs outstretched amidst a pile of ripped out notebook pages, pens, pencils, a book on antisocial personality disorder, and one marked up and highlighted manuscript. My laptop is overheating on my thighs.

This is not how any normal person should be spending such a gorgeous day. But I’m not normal. I’m a writer. And because I have no job and have literally just graduated from college, this is the only way I can feel productive.

My newly acquired degree, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, is lying on the floor across the room. I’m contemplating the literary journey that accompanied it. I started college in the clich├ęd fashion—bright eyed, excited for the creative writing courses that would surely launch my long and successful literary career. I defined myself as a fiction writer—since age seven, in fact. I had dabbled in poetry a bit in high school—real awful stuff fueled by a bad breakup, but I never took it all that seriously.

After two semesters of fiction courses, I became sort of jaded. I was awful at writing short stories, identifying more as a novelist, and couldn’t see any way of salvaging the four pieces I had created over the course of that year. I started taking poetry, and continued to do so up until my final semester. I learned about line breaks and alliteration, and what exactly a villanelle was. My poetry started off adequate, I suppose, but as I wrote more and more I got better at it. I found my voice, even—a strong, characteristically feminine one, with abundant sarcasm. There was no doubt in my mind that my Senior Thesis Project would be a portfolio of my own poetry, and that’s exactly what I did. My poetry put the “Fine” in “Fine Arts” on my degree.

So then why am I sitting here outlining the first chapter of a novel? Never mind the fact that I can’t stand outlining. You see, I decided to take one last fiction course at Emerson, not thinking much would come of it, until I was bitch slapped by an idea and thrown back into the crippling obsession that is fiction writing. I am right back where I started, plus a degree and minus a source of income, the bookstore I worked at for four and a half years having closed the day before my graduation.

I have four Microsoft Word pages open at the moment, as well as Facebook. I keep going back and forth, debating whether or not to update my status. Something like, “outlining chapter one, this sucks!” or “thinking of starting a blog, but I’m not really all that interesting.” I’m resisting. I feel that I am constantly seeking attention and approval for my writing. I vowed to myself not to update until I had something concrete to report, Chapter One in its entirety, perhaps. At some point, probably within the next hour, I’ll make some appeal for ideas for my blog title. I probably won’t get any responses, but thanks to my iPhone, I’ll be checking in every ten minutes just to be sure. My social awkwardness and tendency to be an attention whore really do not mix well.

I have a notepad lying next to me with a faux fountain pen on top. It’s a disposable pen, a Pilot Varsity whose tip is the only thing that gives it away as a fountain pen. I refuse to write on this particular paper with any other pen—I love the scratching noise it makes when I’m frantically scribbling down ideas. The top of the page screams, “Chapter One Breakdown!!!” and I have split the notes into two sections: “What actually happens,” and “What needs to be established.” The first list has exactly five bullet points—five precise moments of action. The second list has ten. I am drowning in exposition—things that need to be known about characters, relationships, location before the story can move forward. I try to think of things I can push into the second chapter, but nothing seems to work. Every tiny detail seems necessary.

I thought the outlining would help me figure things out, but maybe I’m trying to be the sort of organized writer that I just inherently am not. Maybe it’s better just to storm through whatever idea pops into my head, worry about organizing and editing later. Because that’s what I love about writing. That’s what defines me as a writer—that sort of tornado of passionate insanity that sweeps through your brain. Once it’s gone you’re left with a page of words and you’re not quite sure how even it came to be.

Outlining isn’t really for me.

I update my Facebook: “taking the plunge into blog writing…the hardest part is coming up with a title.” Gizmo jumps down from the window and onto the bed, walks across my papers and lies directly on top of my manuscript. Didn’t somebody once say that animals are wise? Or maybe I made that up.