Notes on a being an ignoramus, beginning writer

“The proof must appear in plot.”


— John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction

As I plow through the pages of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, I cannot help but think about my lack of formal education throughout grade school till high school. I’m embarrassed of it. Really, truly, sadly embarrassed of it. There are times at work where I reread and reread one sentence while I’m copyediting just to make sure everything is right and grammatically correct. It’s my job, so, of course, I have to do this. At the same time, I’m probably one of the slowest copyeditors at our publishing house, and it embarrasses me (I’m pretty good at the design stuff, but I’ve always been fast at InDesign and Photoshop). But, again, it’s my job, and I’m happy I have a job where I get paid to brush up on my grammar skills. It really is a blessing.

But, let me get back to my point. The one sentiment Gardner said that jarred me was this: “No one can hope to write well if he has not mastered–absolutely mastered–the rudiments: grammar and syntax, punctation, diction, sentence variety, paragraph structure, and so forth.” When I read this, my ears got hot and I couldn’t help but not scratch them (usually when I’m embarrassed or nervous, my ears get hot. Weird, no?) When I first started to write, I would write with so much emotion. There would be many typos and disagreements in verb tense. I think when I begun to write, all my doubts and self-loathing showed up on the page. I remember putting the book down, looking up at the ceiling, and remembering the first time I ever felt embarrassed of my public education at disadvantaged schools. The first time was at the first academic conference I attended when I was 17 years old, which was called Wheatstone Academy, a Socratic forum for Christian apologetics. There was this little game we played as an icebreaker where we were split into groups of four, and there were these tiny scraps of words and grammar elements arrayed on the tables in front of us. The group who was the fastest at figuring out their little grammar sentence puzzles won. Now, most of the kids at this conference were either from the OC or Whittier or some white-bread town, and most of them attended Greek Orthodox or Catholic churches, attended private schools, and had a college fund or trust fund waiting patiently for them to turn of age. I neither went to a private school nor had a college fund, let alone a trust fund. As I said in an earlier post on my writing blog, I went to a school where they stuffed us in small classes with 40 students minimum and one teacher. The bad teachers made us do boring workbooks for hours and hours, and I remember once that instead of reading the play “Macbeth,” we were only assigned to perform a scene from it while in groups. I attended a community college right after high school, and I felt like it was a buffer that prepared me a little bit for college, but even so, I still had a difficult time at USC and didn’t necessarily graduate with a 3.9 or above. And unlike my colleagues at Wheatstone, I had to pay for my own college education through loans, and the fact that I majored in English is a little ironic (I guess I’m going to be poor for the rest of my life, especially since I want to be a writer, but I digress). I sat there while everyone around me was excited at this grammar game, looking at the scraps of paper that said, “compound verb tense” and “compound subject” and “independent/dependent clauses.” I sat there befuddled, feeling completely stupid and moronic. How could I be 17 years old and not know what these grammar concepts meant? I heard them before in passing and remember hearing these words fly around in Dr. SC’s class (and only in Dr. SC’s class, which was the only high school class I had that went over syntax, which I thought was challenging and fun, especially when we read Nicholson Baker’s “The Size of Thoughts”). Now, on to my point about this whole blog post. I am sincerely afraid I’m not good enough to be a writer. I feel really stupid at times, especially when I make silly grammar mistakes. I look at my past writings, from my short stories to my poems, and though there are some writings that I question in a good way (like, did I really write that?) and there are others where I just want to stick my head in a hole somewhere. I am just sincerely scared, or more so, doubtful. I know there’s a certain narrow path I want to travel, I can see all the signposts that I need to meet, but there’s a thousand of ’em and I’m not sure if I’m smart enough to reach them all. But, I know I want to, and I want to try.

Even after reading that one jarring sentence, I kept on plowing through Gardner’s second chapter. The next sentence gave me a bit of relief: “With the proper help and the proper book, any good student can cover the fundamentals, once and for all, in two weeks. The proper book, in my opinion, is W.W. Watt’s An American Rhetoric…” and he goes on to say why that grammar book is the best, mostly because it’s fun, quirky, and interesting. After a quick browse through Amazon and a NY Times article, I opted to not get W.W. Watt’s book (it’s $82 for a used copy) and instead bought, for under $3, The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge. Michael Dirda said it’s a go-to book for grammar, and after reading a lot of reviews, I believe him.

I guess, after a lot of thought, I’m also happy that I waited a year and decided to not apply straight to grad school after college. After a week-long conference at VONA/Voices (where Junot Diaz told us to not be “dentists,” dentists can go straight to dentistry school and become dentists, but writers, on the other hand, cannot. You need to live first and find your voice, or else you might regret it) and a few months of living life on the outskirts of the ivory tower, I’ve realized the folly of my romantic dreams of becoming a writer. Though I tried to keep telling myself otherwise, I realize I was a lot like the kids in my workshops. We were writing because we had this idea in our heads on what a writer was and how a writer’s life should be lived, especially since we saw it in fruition through the lives of our professors, who were famous rockstars in the literary world. I don’t know if I’m going to become a famous writer. I don’t know if I’m even good at it, though people do tell me I have some sort of talent for it. And the thing is, I love it. I’ve lived my life by writing, and though no good writing can ever come from someone who only “writes to express himself,” as Gardner says, I want to continue down this writer’s life because I do have something to say. I want to do the hard work that needs to be done to become a writer, a good one at least. Not only that, I realize time and time again how much I do love this art form. I can’t help but not think about this medium in my daily life. I think about it constantly, even when I watch a movie, see a play, listen to a story on the radio, or hear a song or composition. Nothing has ever affected me as much as a novel or short story has. Though some stories I hear on the radio do stay with me, especially the stories on Ira Glass’ This American Life, and though there are some films I absolutely love, I cannot say those mediums have had the same lasting effects on me as literature has. The first time I ever cried over a story was when I was little girl in third grade. It was a story about Persephone. I would go to the school’s library at Carson Elementary School instead of the playground during recess and lunch. There was this huge book there on Greek mythology. I would sit on the floor, open the book as if it were sent from God, and read about countless, abridged stories on the Greek gods and their follies. I want to write simply because I love stories. And even if I don’t become like my beloved professors, I hope I won’t regret trying. As Mark Twain said, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did. Writing for me is an ineluctable reality. Writing is a part of me, and if I can make a living out of it, well, hell, why not try?


2 thoughts on “Notes on a being an ignoramus, beginning writer

    1. Thanks for the heartfelt response, Oscar! I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who had/has to work on my grammar knowledge. It makes me feel better too, since you’re a wonderful poet! I’m getting “The Reader Over Your Shoulder” soon in the mail, so I’ll let you know how it is!

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