I’m starting a series of posts on writing called Know the Rules, Respect the Rules, Break the Rules. I used to teach a class called Foundations for Excellence: a required course for freshmen that was sort of like College 101. We had a unit on writing which I always began by saying to my students, “Rules are meant to be broken.” Eyes widened, mouths dropped open, I had a classroom full of shocked, confused expressions, looking back at me as if to say, Our teacher is telling us to break the rules? “It’s true,” I’d say. “Well, first rules are meant to be known, then they’re meant to be broken.”
To know something is so much more than to merely have a collection of facts tumbling around in your brain. Knowing is, in a sense, to enter into a relationship with a thing. This is certainly true about knowing the rules of writing. My relationship with the rules of writing is the endeavor of this series, and it starts where all things start: with introductions.
Introducing Mrs. Gilstrap
There are several teachers and professors who taught, corrected, and encouraged me in my writing, who believed in me and were instrumental to who I am as a writer and a person. The one who really got the ball rolling was my High School English teacher Mrs. Gilstrap, who taught me about structure and style and saw something special in my work. Mrs. Gilstrap taught me how to write properly (and well). She really took my work to a whole new level, and gave me a great head start when I started college. She taught me that understanding grammar gives one freedom as a writer to break the rules. It was this foundation that paved the way for authors I would later read to open up my world to the meaningful use of punctuation and linguistics.
I learn the quite a lot about writing from reading: fiction and non-fiction—literary criticisms, novels, series, memoirs, poetry, essays. I’m a slow reader, in part because I like to read as if I’m reading aloud. With fiction, I like to imagine all the details; with non-fiction, I pretend what I’m reading is a lecture, which often gives the dynamics of a good orator to an otherwise laborious text. Reading slowly also gives me a good feel for the author’s particular style. I absorb it without really even thinking about it—like the way we start to pick up the words and phrases our friends use, I begin to incorporate style subtleties of those I’m reading into my own writing, and even words and phrases. Sometimes reading too much gets in the way of writing, because of course, writing is also a good teacher of writing.
The following writers introduced me to the subtleties of writing. When I say an author has introduced me to a punctuation mark, I mean he or she has allowed me to see this mark for what it really is—and, what it can be.
C.S. Lewis introduced me to parentheses; he also introduced me to capitalization, as did e.e. cummings. Madeleine L’Engle introduced me to the semi-colon; Mellissa Bank, the progressive participle; and Lynne Truss, the dash — along with Emily Dickenson. There are others, no doubt, but these are the major players.
These are the people and habits which introduced me to writing: to grammar, to structure, to style — they introduced me to the rules and helped me understand the rules well enough to respect the spirit underneath them, which freed me, led me really, to break out beyond them. The next several posts will give a look at how these specific authors and books opened my world to things so seemingly mundane as punctuation.