Saturday, July 16, 2011

Grammar Exposures

How we write is often far more telling than what we write.

I am, of course, speaking mostly of rough drafts. While it is true - and in fact, Natalie Goldberg encourages us to look closely at the structure of each book, article, essay and story we read, noticing the organization of the writer's mind - that a finished product does show us something about the person who wrote it, there's nothing like a rough draft (hint: often emails are rough drafts) to show us what is really going on, if we know what to look for.

In Listening In, I note that we can listen/read for shifts such as:
-Change in tense (piece was in past tense, now is in present tense)
-Change in Point of View (you told the piece in second person, now he is telling it in third person)
-Change in tone of voice/in voice (at first it is very instructional, then suddenly I am confessing things)
-Change in form (from poetry to prose, from journal to essay, etc)
-Sudden resistance (this sucks, I don't know why I am writing this, I am bored)

The reason why we notice these moments is that they often signal some kind of resistance, or a shift in mind. Often, resistance hides something - a jewel inside a lump of coal, or, even if it is not beautiful, some vulnerable thing we don't wish to reveal to ourselves or anyone else. Subtle changes can point to that - they don't have to be full-on resistance - any of the examples above and many more can point to a place where something is about to open up, close down or otherwise show itself partially or fully.

Yesterday, I got to experience this with one of my "campers" at a gifted and talented school/camp program I teach each summer. I was shocked - normally junior high kids are not that willing to notice themselves. 

But this girl was ready, perhaps waiting for someone to catch on and help her open up.

I met with students to discuss their progress (halfway through the program) and talk about goals for the next week. This student, Amy (not her real name), is quiet, shy and reserved, but not tense. She has an air about her of utter vulnerability - like she could cry at any moment. She is a very powerful writer, I'd say the best or second best in my class of 16 kids. I gave her a copy of In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje to read the second day, since her first day's writing was very lyrical. She ate the book up, loves it. We have talked about the book and about her parents' divorce a bit, but that's it.

Her piece, the one we were looking over for trouble she couldn't figure out how to fix, had two issues: run-on sentences and shifting POV. The run-on sentences contained shifting POV, so I figured we could get them both done by fixing POV. We re-read the whole piece, about a page long. The beginning is in third person (he) and then shifts to second person (you) and then, all of a sudden, for three lines, to first person (me). She got the shift from third to second, but couldn't seem to actually see the shift to first person. 

"Who IS this me here?" I asked, quite innocently.
Pause. Silence. We were elbow to elbow, pens on the page.  I looked up and not a foot from me, her face was scrunching up and tears were welling in her eyes. 
"I may cry," she said and I smiled - that's what I tell people when I am going to cry. 
Not "I'm sorry" but just a heads up that the tears are coming, and I am going to move forward anyway.
"Cry all you need. Here, let me get some Kleenex." The torrents began.
I let her cry for a few minutes, touching her elbow, saying nothing, much like I do in my adult classes. 

She began to speak, voice hitching over her ending tears. "That's..." hick "I..." hick "Once I made a mistake, or, she said I made a mistake and I think" hick "that it was actually that she had something" hick "in her past" hick "that" hick, pause
We sat for a moment. 
"That sounds really painful." I said. 
She nodded, still hiccup-crying.
After a little more time, I continued,
"That's a hard one, Amy. Lots of people see only their experience when they interact with others. What you are trying to explain - that this happens and it isn't right, causes a lot of pain - that's important. Only you are telling it as fiction, right?"
"Right," she replied, wiping her face and sitting up straight. I could see her computing.
"It needs to be in second person, just like the rest of it," she concluded.
"Yes. Exactly."
"I take my experience and make it that of the character."
"Yep. You got it. Only you know what? This isn't an error. It's very revealing. Look for things like this in your writing. They can help show you where you still need some healing. Do you feel better now?"
She smiled, "Yes. A lot."
"See? Not a mistake at all!" and we both laughed. 

Later, she chose to make the whole story in first person plural (we) which I told her was the most powerful of options. Much stronger, and still included her own experience.

It's often not this obvious. 
And just as often, it's not an emotional mistake - a student genuinely doesn't know how to use the correct grammar. However, it is true that even as adults (if not especially as adults) we carefully construct our words, even our thoughts, to hide where we feel the most exposed. But when we are given, or give ourselves the chance to notice those spots - wow. In the right situation, with a lot of trust, there can be a huge release in the most simple grammar "error." 

I prefer to call them "grammar exposures." 

How different our English classes and writing workshops would be if we considered each "mistake" to be a possible revelation

How different our society would be if we considered each "step back" a possible leap into honest vulnerability - a true step forward for an Enlightened Society.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Miriam,

    I have been reading through your blog (the whole archives) and enjoying it tremendously, and this article in particular is one that has leaped out and spoken to me.

    I write a lot of reviews for writers and I love the idea of "grammar exposures". Keeping this in mind will go a long way to helping me be the compassionate and insightful reviewer I'd like to be.

    Thank you very much!