A midlife crisis had me returning to school for my Masters in Education and then searching for a teaching job at 45 years of age. Not yet certified but in dire need of employment I landed an interview for a part time art position with an inner city Catholic middle school that we’ll call Saint Somewhere’s Academy. During the hiring process, however, I was presented with a unique opportunity. Classes were starting in less than a week and St. Somewhere’s was desperate to fill the last spot on its team of Americorps volunteers. This meant I could gain 2 years teaching experience if I signed on with the half dozen or so college grads already in place. This would be a crowning achievement to an otherwise meager resume, but surviving on the $12,000 a year stipend would be next to impossible. I regretfully declined.
But wait, said Saint Somewhere, there’s more!
To help offset my living expenses during the school year, I was offered free room and board. The Americorps volunteers, as it turned out, were able to live on the grounds of a nearby parish. Though residents were typically charged rent in the old renovated convent, this fee would be waived if I accepted the role of house manager. My responsibilities would be minimal, however, because let’s not forget, I would already be a full time teacher with the take-home workload to match. Everyone would pitch in to take care of the place. For the most part my job would be to delegate. It was my unusual age as a recruit that St. Somewhere’s found so appealing. They laughed that hopefully some of my maturity would rub off on the others. I’m still laughing.
I would never suggest that this handful of twentysomethings represented their entire generation. They did, however, come to justify some of the by now cliché assumptions of that reputedly self-important, self-entitled breed we've come to nickname millennials. These young adults are the product of raising kids without accountability. Theirs are the parents which held the teacher responsible for a bad grade, the boss in the wrong for a poor review, the cop as the culprit of a misdemeanor. At bedtime these kids were read positive affirmations instead of Roald Dahl. Their social cues sharpened by media browsing rather than field work, these millennials have developed the etiquette of computer cursors, coldly passing over all they survey and quickly minimizing or closing out whatever disinterests them. Navigating life like browsing on Amazon, there is always a better offer and usually one with fast & free delivery.
I moved in with these people on a Friday and by Sunday there were issues with the garbage. Because of the number of residents, the convent had four full-sized plastic barrels: one for regular trash and three others for recycling. All of us being adults, the simple verbal agreement was that if you were the last to fill a can to the top, you emptied it. The problem here was that the term “top” was apparently negotiable. Soon enough, four balanced towers of trash rose in the kitchen corner. Imagine my surprise when, after I finally resolved to take care of the cans myself, I returned to the kitchen to find an empty pizza box set perfectly in the center of all four. This became indicative of how our convent duties were handled until I posted a chore calendar holding everyone accountable. Even then there were residents who outright ignored their assignments until the bitter end. An excerpt from a very telling email goes as follows:
It has come to my attention that some of us are putting in more effort than others when it comes to the convent chores, causing an atmosphere of unfairness and disharmony. I’m confident this continues to be a matter of oversight rather than negligence.
A recurring issue has become the unsanitary condition of our kitchen and dining rooms, which we are all responsible for maintaining. This is the 3rd request for your cooperation with these areas and in lieu of notifying human resources etc, etc.
Responsibilities were quickly multiplying at school as well as at home. From day one, Saint Somewhere’s administration demanded a level of time and commitment from their Americorps team that far outweighed the humble compensation. This was the nature of the beast, it was service work, that’s Americorps. It wasn’t unusual for us to put in 12-hour days and 70-hour weeks. We hustled to stay on top of teaching class, coaching sports, and facilitating co-curriculars. Add to this the juggling of heavily personalized progress reports, report cards, and a seemingly endless lineup of fundraising events to keep it all going, we were all pushed to our limits.
Overworked and underpaid for the first time in the real world, my fledgling coworkers started harboring some resentments. Admittedly, it felt good to blow off some steam with them now and again, grumbling over administrative injustice, the general unfairness of life. I excused myself early from the grumbling, though, once it started to creep into the school day. To fester over some drinks and tacos in the convent TV room was one thing, to carry on in little fuming clusters during recess or breakfast duty was quite another. I waited for my coworkers to either leave it at home or leave it at work, but to no avail. Their belaboring turned relentless and all-inclusive.
Teachers start behaving like the age group they teach. This little nugget had been handed down to me a year prior during my graduate school internship and proved itself to be prophetic at Saint Somewhere’s. Subtly at first but then with somewhat alarming vigor, the Americorps kids began displaying behaviors that aligned uncanningly close to those of our students. And though Saint Somewhere’s took pride in its body of undoubtedly precocious and extraordinary children, these were ultimately middle schoolers - and all that that implies.
Unable to afford a vehicle and its insurance, I gratefully carpooled to work with one of my housemates, alternating between two or three possibilities each day. It was during these commutes that I realized the scope of worker animosity had widened beyond the administration. Now their spitefulness was directed at one another. From teaching styles to student relations, no one was more adept than whomever happened to be driving that day.
“Have you seen how Nathan teaches?” the driver might ask. “That guy doesn’t belong anywhere NEAR a classroom. His first period is like a zoo. He doesn’t know how to handle them!”
“Well, this is new to all of us,” I’d offer as a typical response. “And that 7th grade can be pretty tough.”
“Can’t manage them either, huh? Well they don’t give me any trouble whatsoever,” I’d be told less than humbly. “If you need me to come in and give you some pointers, just say the word.”
If two or more team members were present for the slam session, the venom sprayed toward whomever was not there. I knew the more I separated myself from the maliciousness and slander, the wider a target I became. I remember more than a few times joining a table or entering a room and the topic suddenly shifting, or a suspicious hush falling over everyone. Or was I just getting paranoid? I hadn’t felt this insecure since my own middle school years.
The taxing combination of full-time teaching, convent den mothering, and the prepubescent mind jousting that accompanied them both weighed on me far more heavily than I dared to admit. By that first February my mental state had become as fragile as the kitchen’s perpetual teetering pillar of aluminum recycling. One day a casual detour to our school counselor during one of my planning periods turned surprisingly desperate as I crumbled suddenly in the bean bag chair, shivering and sobbing uncontrollably, dumbfounded over my vain attempts to pull it together.
“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” I kept mumbling.
Next thing I knew, the principal and dean were at my sides, consoling me with profound understanding. Sharing war stories from the early days of their own careers, the women urged me to rest assured - this kind of thing was par for the course.
“I was a high school math teacher the year my mother passed away,” the dean told me, “Somehow coverage for my classes got botched and the lead teacher blamed me for not following procedures correctly. She put me on probation and in light of everything else, I had a complete nervous breakdown.”
Covering the rest of my classes herself, the dean secured me a ride home while the principal encouraged me to sleep it off. By first period the next day the whole episode had been forgotten, never again even alluded to throughout the rest of my mission at Saint Somewhere’s.
This opened my eyes to our administration’s humanity, restoring my faith in having chosen this field to work in for the rest of my life. After an especially grueling late Friday afternoon professional development workshop nuanced with the usual cattiness and ironic sarcasm of the millennials, I decided to abandon protocol and chance a text to our understandably deflated principal. In not so many words I sympathized with her position, encouraging her with an emoticon wink to sleep this one off while I took the weekend shift. This was responded to in due time with an authentic thanks and a knowing wink of her own. Kids these days.
Twice a year, Americorps staff members received performance reviews. These one-on-one conferences, led by Saint Somewhere’s principal, were to be considered learning opportunities. In the spirit of creative criticism - and not affiliated with our official transcripts - the review was a chance for us to see where we were placing on the barometers of professionalism - where we might be excelling as teachers as well as where we were falling short. Needless to say the amount of contempt aroused in the millennials during this half week of meetings was substantial. Perceived as accusatory - not to mention completely unreasonable - these evaluations were regarded as nothing less than acts of war.
“How does SHE know how effectively I use my time?” was one teacher’s gripe. “She’s never even in my classroom! And how are we expected to learn from these people if they’re never around!”
It was during one of these evaluations I received one of the comments I remain most proud of to this day.
“(Brian) has a keen ability to rise above any noise or drama produced by his colleagues and maintain a positive attitude.”
When the principal first read this aloud to me I was sure I hadn’t heard correctly. I asked her to repeat it. Not only did she read the comment to me again, she elaborated, commending me on my steady efforts to steer clear of the millennials and their trite, often damaging negative energies in the professional arena. I didn’t realize how much I longed for such validation - the impact was profound. It was as if acknowledging this spirit-crushing generation gap I’d been navigating for the past 2 years drew it into the light. I was now able to understand it, learn from it. Presented with an incredibly challenging and mostly thankless job - and plenty of opportunities to bitch and moan about it - I’d triumphed by simply holding onto the work ethic I was raised with. I was an example of maturity after all because, and this is the best part, I was old school. I left the meeting that day feeling I’d become not only a slightly better teacher than I was before, but a slightly better man as well.
As our 2 year mission drew to a close, the time had come for us to start preparing for life after Saint Somewhere’s. Our final months were a whirlwind of resumes and job interviews, sealed transcripts and letters of recommendation. From the beginning, Saint Somewhere’s had made it clear that volunteering teachers should not expect to stay on as regular staff, it rarely (if ever) happened. Americorps was always ripe with fresh candidates perfectly willing to do what we had just done for the past 24 months - basically everything for next to nothing. With that in mind I had begun a year earlier with preparations for a major move to the west coast. However, a number of my colleagues weren’t totally convinced they were leaving Saint Somewhere’s. After all they had done for the middle school, and after having done it all so WELL, how could they NOT be offered permanent positions? In the end, the school kept its word and hired no one from the Americorps team. True to form, my coworkers spent the remaining weeks brooding and vengeful, in a grand finale of palpable bitterness.
On the last day of work I noticed that by the time we got to school, I was back in good spirits, realizing only a few more nights in the convent remained before I’d be handing in my keys. The place had grown out of control, chores left half done or abandoned completely, towers of balanced trash all but bursting through the roof. As we pulled into the parking lot I noticed my coworker was nowhere near as peaceful. In fact he was working himself into the same froth he’d been in the day before, and the day before that. “I mean, I can’t even believe these people are my PARENTS,” he scowled, still grappling with the fact that he was going to be charged rent after moving back into the house he’d grown up in. “It wouldn’t be that big of a deal - but I haven’t heard back from even ONE of the schools I’ve sent my resume to. It’s completely absurd! I’ve put in too much time to be in this position right now. I’ve worked too hard!”
All I could do was agree with him. He was right. The whole situation was, in fact, completely absurd.
THE QUENCHING OF ELOQUENCE
My salad days have wilted and along with them, my mind.
It used to be I’d think of words if given enough time;
But now, when I’m relating some occurrence of import
I suddenly look blank and come up short.
My audience is mesmerized until there’s “memory fade.”
And just like that a word is gone I’ve known since second grade.
It’s mortifying, cruel and sad to turn into a dud;
My tongue, once silver-tipped, now Elmer Fudd.
Association is the key, a word that would define
The word I can’t recall that has departed from my mind.
But now I can’t remember it, can’t think of either word.
How absolutely stupid and absurd!
I have an idea for the young, whose minds are sharp as tacks--
Apply for jobs as “word suppliers,” “fillers-in of cracks.”
Us elderlies would snap them up without a second thought
And finish sentences the way we ought.
A Review of How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing by Paul J. Silvia, Ph.D. ~ J.D. DeHart
I know what it is like to try to balance the world of writing for work and writing for pleasure. One of the mistakes I have made in the past is thinking that creativity rests in only one of those spheres.
How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia really focuses on work writing, the academic writing process that some of us finding ourselves engaged with. What works best for all writers in this book is the practical advice Silvia gives for writing while balancing other work demands. We all share that cross, regardless of our day job.
Silvia acknowledges that sometimes writing is hard. He emphasizes regular commitment, even to the point of creating a spreadsheet to chart your work. While I am not ready to go into a full on analytic document, I have benefited from the use of Excel pages in the past to organize my writing and help me realize my best times for putting words on the page.
I recommend this book for academics, certainly, and anyone who wishes to engage in journal publishing – there are wise words here about submissions. I would also recommend this book for anyone who wants to begin a regular, committed lifestyle of writing.
Today I have to make a decision. I searched all of my hiding places and didn’t find any. I was sure I had one in one of them. I was feeling desperate and very sad. I needed just a taste to get me by.
There were no soft ones, some were almost there, another day or two and they’d be ready. But I couldn’t wait, I couldn’t stand the pain any longer and I made the call.
The lady who answered was very nice and understanding. She’d been through the same predicament herself. She gave me several options and we talked for hours.
Towards the end of our session, she told me to check my areas again. I went to the bag that was in the darkness of the closet first. I was overjoyed to find one ready, it felt like a miracle had happened. I thanked her and told her I’d love to hug her. She said she was always available for a hug.
I decided right then to become a member. The dues were affordable and there was always someone available either by phone or in person at their various locations. It was also good to know there were people out there just like me. I felt great relief knowing I had someone to help me at any time day or night.
I’m now part of an organization called Avocadoes Anonymous.
Call me nuts, but I wanted to bake a fruitcake.
Fruitcake gets a bad rap. I liked it when I ate it as a child, which wasn’t very often. My parents never served one. I figured if I could make a truly fantastic one, they’d have to agree it was good.
I found an amazing recipe online. Sadly, one of the ingredients was rum. I think I mixed up converting imperial to metric. It did seem odd to me that a two-pound fruitcake would have over ten shots of rum in it. Oh well.
I mailed the fruitcake to my parents as a gift. Unfortunately, their lifelong hatred kept them from even trying it. So they passed it on to my great niece, age three, and my great nephew, age two. It being the holidays, no one minded the kids scarfing down the entire thing. Until they started going bonkers. Then, after bouncing off the wall for over an hour, the vomiting commenced. I’m told it was ugly.
So, from that day forward, I’ve been the “crazy uncle” who got the kids hammered on Christmas. And maybe I really was crazy to think I could redeem the reputation of poor fruitcake.
The moral of this story is … fruitcakes come in many forms.
As a literary magazine editor, I read poetry every day: good poetry, mundane poetry, structured poetry, free verse ... . But reading Life, Love & Other Disasters: poems by Steve Herbert felt like sinking into my favorite chair at the end of a long, busy day. Herbert's imagery is crisp, his words flow naturally, his rhythms and rhymes are spot on. He doesn't try to impress; he tries (very successfully) to communicate.
I've been enjoying Steve's work for nearly 8 years now, and he never ceases to surprise and entertain, or touch and inform me. He reminds me that to be human is to struggle with the little things, to savor the blessings, and, above all, to stay emotionally connected to the rest of humanity with a laugh or a sigh. Without question, this New Zealander vies with Emily Dickinson for the title of My Favorite Poet.
Life, Love & Other Disasters: poems by Steve Herbert is this poet's first published collection -- thirty poems that will make you laugh (25 Questions For A First Date), prompt a tear (Elephant in the Room), and warm your heart (Photograph of my Father).
My only complaint is that this volume is not available in hardcover. It's one I will enjoy for years to come.
Life, Love & Other Disasters: poems by Steve Herbert
Copyright 2018 by Steve Herbert
From powerfully haunting poems such as In the Year of Drought to What Will become of this City
Marianne Szlyk’s I Dream of Empathy is a significant and urgent addition to the poetry collection
The very first pages of this book have the ability to grab a reader by the heart and the brain. How does the poet manage this feat? She seems to do this with ease and charm, primarily and carefully
through her use of vivid imagery, realia, flashbacks and juxtaposition. For example, the poet talks about
a miserable man who was carried to an oak. The photo of a hang tree reminds her of days in Oregon.
I dream of empathy
I dream of empathy
but I wake up
to a photograph
of a hang tree.
Years later in California
the tree still stands
with its silver-white bark,
wise body hair of moss,
and branches flung
against a paper-winter sky.
The photograph on the wall
of my days in Oregon,
tickling off the madrone,
even the sequoia in a yard,
As the poet explores the plight and blight of immigrants or other vulnerable people living under harsh
conditions characterized by the trash of daily life, swarms of mosquitoes—the crucial question is: do
contemporary citizens and leaders of this world have the conscience and capacity to place themselves in
other people`s shoes?
In The Third Year of the Drought
Drapes across the windows
conceal the landscape outside:
the solitary trees, the metallic sky,
the scuffed hills that were once
pillows for a dead man`s dreams,
back when it rained all winter
and he was a young man
imagining himself old.
Only the immigrants are outside,
riding bicycles on the ash-black road
in the harsh sun and constant drought.
As I was devouring this collection word by word, sentence by sentence, I couldn’t help thinking and
asking: have we become worse than apes? For empathy is thought to be deep-rooted in our bodies,
brains and our history of evolution. Offering up images that seethe with refined and refreshing
revelation, Marianne succeeds in galvanizing a reader into being intimate with the dream of empathy,
its realities, its emotions and experiences.
Perhaps the following piece epitomizes the poet`s knack for fashioning an impactful literary journey. The wonderful imagery invoked by the heart of this piece still lingers and weighs on my mind.
She Wonders What Will Become Of This City
The sky above swells into a bruise over a blood vessel.
Swarms of mosquitoes rise from puddles and gutters.
It is always about to rain, sometimes about to thunder.
Acid rain cannot cleanse the ground or the air.
The pages of books dampen and thicken,
becoming too heavy to turn, too blurred to read.
The green fuzz of moss grows over trees
like plague on teeth. Bones ache with decay.
Buses stall. Last year today would have been Code Red.
No one walks. No one rides for free.
She wonders what will become of this city
once the oceans rise and ghost towns form like coral reefs.
The lesson I have drawn from this rare collection is that our morality depends on empathy.
For a better world to emerge, it is imperative to understand and embrace the capacity to emotionally
and mentally trade places with fellow human beings, especially those who are languishing in dire
situations. This is a great and gratifying book that deserves to be read and cherished for posterity.
Marianne Szlyk is the editor of the online journal, The Song is… and a professor of English at
Recently I received advice that changed my world. I'm a writer but right now I feel like I'm twiddling dials and my screen is snowing. The advice? Are you sitting down? Is there someone near you that will object to you running around the house screaming? Well then, stop reading. THIS ADVICE IS DEFINITELY NOT FOR YOU. DO NOT PROCEED ANY FURTHER.
I write for children. At least I am on the precipice of getting published any minute, week, month...maybe any year now.
The advice came from a blog I follow, Writing for Kids While Raising Them by Tara Lazar. Jess Keating said, "Everyday, learn something new."
That's sheer brilliance. What a way to capture the fountain of youth. Ponce de Leon got it wrong.
I write for preschool children. What amazes me about them is their endless fascination with life. We will be outside and ten kids will run up to me exclaiming excitedly, "We saw a lady bug!" They are excited about learning and I am going to capture that.
What have I learned in the three days I've put this in practice?
Birds have a mechanism in their feet to prevent their tootsies from freezing.
You can pay for the catering for your funeral in advance. My friend's mother passed away and it was the sweetest one I've ever been to. Her son did the eulogy. His whole emphasis was to tell us who she was. It was planned by her and it was joyful.
You can make word families on two styrofoam cups. My four year olds and I explored the 'ap' family today.
Every day I purpose to learn something new. This attitude is going to strengthen my writing.
I remember Uncle Zarn. He wasn't really my uncle, just a friend of my mother's, but he was the most important man in my life.
I never knew my father. He left us before I was born.
Uncle Zarn was like a father, brother and best friend all rolled into one, but I never really knew him either. I asked him about his name, but he just smiled and said that it was a gift from a grandmother in the old country. He never mentioned which "old country."
If my mother knew more about him than I did, she kept it to herself. For some reason, she trusted him. She never explained why.
He was an unusual man, who hardly ever talked about himself. He always seemed more interested in what had happened to me since he had seen me last.
On the nights he came to visit, we would nibble cheese and soda crackers. He would brush his hair out of his soft, dark eyes, but it would tumble back again, unwilling to conform. He would look at me and ask me what had been happening in my life. I would tell him and he would listen as though my life were the most important life in the world. I always felt like he knew what I had to say before I said it, but he wanted to hear me tell my tales with my own tongue.
He always had stories of his own to tell... wonderful, amazing stories of fantastic places and things that seemed so real when they came from his lips that I was sure that they were the truth. When he told his stories, I was sure that the real world I knew was just a curtain that hid away the places and things in his stories. Or perhaps a curtain we used to hide from them.
We would sit on the fire escape outside the apartment window and look out across the city lights in the darkness and he would tell me stories.
I always thought the city look better at night. When I said that to Uncle Zarn, he just smiled.
He smiled like that the night I asked him where he got all his great stories. He sipped the tea my mother kept around the apartment for him—and in later years for me—then pointed into the darkness, at the lights.
"Do you see that window?"
"Follow my finger."
I looked down along his arm at a building several blocks away.
"You mean the building next to the theatre?"
"Yes. Count four down the windows from the top and two over from the left side. See it?"
"Can you see what's happening inside?"
"No. The shades are pulled down."
He leaned forward and tilted his head a little, still staring at the window.
"They've had a fight."
"The young couple there. She's sitting in the bedroom with the door closed, crying. He's sitting at the kitchen table staring at the glass in his hand. I think he wants to cry too."
I listened to him describe the scene, more surprised that a man would want to cry than that they had had a fight. In our neighbourhood I heard people fighting every night.
"Will they make up?"
He continued to stare at the window.
"I see him getting up. He's going to the door. There's no lock on it, but he's knocking. He's speaking to her through it. She's listening."
He stopped talking. I looked to the window, staring hard, but I couldn’t see anything through the shades.
"How can you see that?"
"Not with these." he said, indicating his eyes with his fingers. He then lightly touched his index finger to his forehead.
"You made that up." I accused him.
His smile faded as he looked over my head, toward downtown. Some of the taller buildings were visible from our fire escape. He pointed over my head, and I swung about to see what had caught his eye.
"Do you see those three buildings, almost the same height, and almost in a row?"
"They belong to a very powerful, very old man. Few people know it, but he's lived for over three hundred years."
I spun back around to challenge him, but there was no deceit in his eyes. I found myself questioning what I knew. Perhaps there was some way a man could live three hundred years.
"He knows a secret and for over three hundred years he has kept it, building his fortunes and preparing himself for a battle he can't win. He is the world's richest man, though few even know of him. When he is gone, the world will not even know."
What secret? What battle? I waited for him to tell me, but instead he turned slightly and pointed to a set of buildings only blocks away. I knew the area, although my mother forbid me to go there. Many of the businesses and shops there attracted people "on the fringe" as she called them. I think they frightened her just because they were different.
I was sure Uncle Zarn had been there.
"Next to the neon sign with half the swirl burnt out, do you see the row of shops?"
"Above each there are apartments. Do you see the fifth and sixth windows where the lights are out?"
"That is the dwelling of the planet's most powerful sorcerer, one sworn to defend us all from evil. He isn't there right now. He's in another dimension searching for an evil so great, it would destroy all of us if it came here. He's gone there to try to stop it before it can open the Gate of The Ways and enter our world."
I stared at him, waiting for more but the horn of a cab sounded below. He looked down at it. It honked once more, then left without any passenger. Uncle Zarn lifted his hand to it, as if waving to an old friend. As if the cabbie had been honking to him, and could see us so many floors above.
"That's Antonio. He's one of the Nightpeople."
"You mean vampires?" I asked, preparing myself for a good scare.
My shoulders slumped in disappointment.
"The Nightpeople are much stranger—and more deadly to those who cross them—than any vampire."
He told me stories of the Nightpeople and I listened, enraptured and terrified.
Later, he slipped his old coat over his strongly-muscled shoulders. The buttons always seemed strained to bursting across his chest, but remained loyal to their calling, and to him. He tussled my hair and wished me goodnight, then kissed my mother on the cheek as he always did and thanked her for the cheese and tea. Then, with one of his special smiles, he was out the door.
It closed behind him with a click, and my mother locked it. I never heard his footsteps start down the hall until after he heard her lock it. Like always, I went to the window and watched him walk down the road until he disappeared into the darkness.
I remember the last night he came.
He asked me what I had done since he had last seen me, and he seemed to hang on every word. The more I said, the more desperate I grew to find something to say... as though I somehow knew this was our last night together
With our tea, we stepped out onto the fire escape.
He had to go, he said, his eyes looking somewhere far beyond the city. He didn't want to, but it was time, he said. There were no stories in the darkness that night.
Back inside, my mother cried as he kissed her cheek. Looking to me one last time, he reached to tussle my hair, but instead brushed it out of my eyes. It fell back again, refusing to conform.
He smiled at that then turned and opened the door.
I tried to speak, but my throat had swollen to twice its normal size and wouldn't be swallowed away.
The door clicked. My mother stood for several seconds with her hand on the lock.
No! Open it again! my mind begged her. He's still there!
She locked it. His footsteps began down the hall. They faded to nothing.
I ran to the fire escape and waited to see him on the street below. When he emerged, I called to him.
He turned and lifted his hand.
I waved numbly in return. Sooner than ever before, the darkness swallowed him.
Through the years, I have learned many lessons from many people... but none like those I learned from Uncle Zarn. Often, I sit on the balcony of my apartment, sipping tea and staring out into the darkness at the lights in the city, seeing their stories.
Perhaps one day I will find his story, the story of the Storyteller.
Some time ago, I received an e-mail from a purported high school student who asserted that what was said was more important than the way it was expressed, thus learning the rules of good writing would be an impediment to creativity.
On behalf of teachers, editors, and readers everywhere, I’d like to say, “Nice try!”
Let’s talk shop.
If good writing – the art of clearly written communication – is something of a religion to its practitioners, its Holy Trinity is spelling, punctuation and grammar. They’re so important that writers and editors have turned them into the acronym SPAG. To be told your writing is full of SPAG is not a good thing.
Spelling encompasses everything to do with vocabulary—using exactly the right word in the right way, spelled correctly. “Easy,” you say? One writer recently confided to me that he checks as many as five thesaurus entries for each descriptive word he uses. The prose that results from this attention to detail is rich, lively and remarkably original. He communicates his vision exactly as he envisions it, often using double meanings, metaphor, and even nonsequiturs to facilitate the reader’s understanding or to inject humor. But he couldn’t attain this remarkable achievement if he didn’t begin with a strong vocabulary and the ability to spell at least well enough to look those words up.
In my opinion, grammar is our second most effective writing tool (vocabulary is the first). The style of grammar we use defines our characters. It brings our settings into focus. It gives us our Voice. As such, I don’t believe there is any such thing as “good” or “bad” grammar. Grammar should be appropriate to the character, time, place and effect we’re trying to create. Getting it right requires knowledge, research, and a well-tuned ear.
What about punctuation? Do we really have to memorize all those rules? Well, we’ve all read jokes in which statements mean outrageously different things depending upon how they’re punctuated. Writers love to make readers laugh. But it’s better when they laugh with us, not at us, right? Those dots and dashes and squiggles we call punctuation are the traffic cops of language. What you use, and where, really does matter if you want to make your meaning clear.
So there it is. Yes, creative writers really do have to learn the rules. They’re our tools. With practice, we learn how to use them effectively and don’t have to think about them so quite so much. At that point, we can let our creativity flow, reasonably confident that we won't have to spend quite so much time editing later.
Brian Michael Riley is a writer whose fiction, nonfiction, and illustration work has appeared in the likes of The Fix, American Baby, Hearst Media, and Berlin's King Kong Magazine. Also an educator and multimedia artist, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit him at www.brianmriley.com