I have now spent the better part of three years attempting to overcome this shibboleth once and for all. Finally, after much reflection, reading, and practice I feel I’ve begun to form systems of hypothesis – or heuristics you might say – which are yielding consistent results.
Right Is Wrong
The idea that life can be mapped to one of two universal, mutually exclusive sets of right or wrong is seductive and intuitive. Perhaps that is why grade school math always felt so natural to me. Much like Euclid’s five axioms of geometry. Of course you can draw a straight line between any two points, and of course everything can be sublimated to either right or wrong.
Unfortunately, no matter how utilitarian and powerful this idea might be, it simply doesn’t fit reality. Life is thick. You smear it like acrylic on canvas. Feather the edges to create the illusion of continuity. And in the end cede all meaning to outside observers.
As in life, so has the metaphor of right and wrong permeated my writing experience. What else could I think when all my work was submitted to judges – teachers – whose sole job was to determine if I belonged to the right group or wrong group. The myth of correctness was further empowered by the common language adopted by my judges. Surely there was a consistent truth that I was missing. How else could the words of so many different people be so consistent?
- “And and but are the only words that can create compound sentences”
- “Commas should always separate two adjectives that precede a noun”
- “Don’t start your sentence with a conjunction”
- “Place commas where there are natural pauses while you speak”
Over the last three years I have read two style guides and three grammar text books. They all disagree. And here is where I began to find freedom. I don’t write to be right. I write to connect and communicate. Towards that end, grammar and punctuations are allies, even if many individuals choose to turn plowshares into swords. A much more apt metaphor than right and wrong then is probabilities and continuous distributions. Today, I choose to write in ways that I feel have higher probability’s of success and leave it at that.
As I continued on my own “Pilgrim’s Progress” I next met “By-ends”. By-ends offered many easy solutions to achieve my writing goals: three paragraphs with an intro and conclusion, don’t use the passive voice, first person and contractions are gauche.
I do believe that many of these suggestions are offered sincerely, but for me they often, at best, overwhelmed and distracted and, at worst, strait-jacketed. It wasn’t until I began to see the purpose of writing, no matter the genre, as being single focused – communicating information – that I began to feel equipped for all writing.
Building on my last post, writing communicates information down two streets: experience and symbolism. My job as writer is to control these streets. Is my writing an engaging experience while also creating a consistent symbolic world my reader can understand?
The most basic of writing structures, sentences, show how central this idea is. All sentences require at their core a subject and verb. The verb is the information being communicated. The subject is the symbol/object being described. Everything else in the sentence (adjectives, preopositions, adverbs, etc.) adds nuance and flavor to the object and information.
All writing exists within social contexts. These contexts predispose readers to conclusions about that writing. Articles I read in the New York Times I often take on faith. Articles I read on Fox News I doubt immediately. A lot of people in this world also have the exact opposite reaction.
This social effect makes it much more difficult for new writers to create works that are highly received. Given this barrier, I can justifiably call the game rigged and unfair. Why should a famous individuals scrap ideas be more readily received than my heart’s work? Or I can know that this bias exists and that negative feedback may not be entirely my fault. Perhaps my job as a writer is to have the courage to put my ideas out there.