Monday, March 14, 2011

Form Follows Gumption

Writing is deeply personal, even when its not. Lately, I have been trying to write a scientific research proposal. The goal is to convey that my intended project is downright wonderful, without actually saying that. I am learning to hate this genre of writing, and not unrelated to that, I am terrible at it. With each turn of objective-sounding phrase, feelings of inadequacy bloom inside of me.

When I was 14, my English teacher told me that my writing, in a word, sucked. From that, I will never recover. Especially since she repeatedly told me that I looked like Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. And although it wasn’t true, I was flattered. Then she gave me a “D” on my Romeo and Juliet paper. Partly, it was because I didn’t follow the rules. I learned that physical beauty is irrelevant to writing, a fact for which I am increasingly thankful for as I age. But I also learned that I didn’t even know the formal rules of writing.

Then, I was told to stay after class one day in an art history course I took in college. It was a large lecture (in a room where Pratt let the stray cats roam free, so my attention to the course material was periodically interrupted by the onset of allergy anxiety as these no-doubt dirty felines took a haughty seat beside me) and I had never had a face-to-face conversation with the professor before. She told me that my paper, on the topic of Arshile Gorky, was exceptional. I was glowing with abstract expressionistic pride. I just stood in front of the painting for hours and I wrote down exactly what I felt. There were no rules and I was obeying all of them.

So which is it, are there basic tenets to all good writing, or do expectations and genere’s toy with form enough to allow a grammatical ignoramus to excel in one realm and fail in another?

Well, no matter how utterly inadmissible it is that I dont know these rigid rules of writing, I dont really care about them. I just want to write. And I want to write clearly and without pretense. I am not sure this is possible in the case of a grant proposal and I know its not possible in the case of Shakespeare. But I think it boils down to bullshit versus non-bullshit. If you believe what you are writing, then its not bullshit, and you can be frank to the point of blinding clarity. But, to write what you truly believe—whether its on Verona or vermilion—is a tremendous risk, because there is a chance that someone might read it, just as you have, this.


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  2. Writers have the title-given leg-room to write the worst blather in the world -- I have done this, and you have done this, Amy Hempel and Wendell Berry and Jack Gilbert have done this, your art history professor has done this. Your english teacher has done it, too.

    I have a degree in fiction writing. One of my writing professors then, Peter Christopher, wrote to us all, "Writing does not require intelligence, looks, friends, money, education. It requires what the least of us possesses: a human heart willing to speak, a heart speaking its truths." It is by this I like to think that courage is often rewarded, and rarely punished -- in writing, yes, but also in life.

    I think you are courageous, @julesinspace

    Do well; be well better,
    Nathan Klose (@chirospasm)

  3. This is so true, I have often felt intimidated by rules, grammar and format. This actually corrupts rather than enhances the writing process for me and I believe for many.It is at the forefront of my mind when writing and causes my thoughts to come to screeching haults and my fingertips to studderstep in fear of writing something that will concretely ink my ignorance and prove an inability to master the technical parts of the craft...leaving overall credibility in question. This sours the organic flow and compromises the writers voice. I hate it and yet cant seem to get over it..AMF

  4. and i just found this perfect quote:

    The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.