Pet Grammatical Peeves

We all have them—pet grammatical peeves.  We see them or hear them and it’s exactly like fingernails on a blackboard, an itch you can’t scratch, being on the verge of a sneeze that won’t come but won’t go away.
Consider these:

  • “15 items or less” (although I should give my thanks to Trader Joe’s; their sign reads “15 items or fewer”)
  • “do you want to lay down?” (Lay down what?  Why don’t people understand that the present tense of “lay” is a wholly different verb from the past tense of “lie”?)
  • “utilize” (what’s wrong with “use”?  I refuse to sign any report or letter with “utilize” in it—the pretension is just about as annoying as the uselessness of “utilize”)
  • “between you and I” (between is a preposition and the pronouns after it should be in objective case, i.e., “between you and me”)
  • “myself” (nothing wrong with this word, except when people use it because they don’t know whether to use “I” or “me”—see above)

I could keep going, but you get the idea.  I bet you have plenty of examples, too.  I try to remind myself regularly that English is a living language and, therefore, subject to evolution, but somehow I can’t get past my pet grammatical peeves.  While it might sound like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon, I try to respect our language and counteract these problems by doing my best to speak and write grammatically—even when I text.  Join me—please.  

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Sumer is Icumen in — along with Summer Conference Season

Summer is such a great time for renewal, re-creation, and expanding horizons.  As a writer, I can tell it’s time for summer because emails and snail mails about summer conferences flow in, enticing me with their subjects and tantalizing me with the wonderful presenters/workshop leaders.  Of course, there are expenses—registration, lodging, flights, meals, incidentals—and there are times when I get greedy, take on too many, and find myself exhausted by the end of the summer.
But I love them.  I write this on the first day of the AWP conference, which I am not attending for a variety of reasons, and some of you may read this while you are in Tampa, but I’m talking about the lazy summer conference—the kind that inspires you to write with space and time to write during the event, the kind that sends you home with a sense of euphoria.
You don’t get that with every conference you attend, but, if you’re lucky, you do—and it’s the best gift ever.  You come home and, if you’re even luckier, that “high” stays with you for at least a week.
So here’s to summer conferences.  Check the web, lists in Writers Digest, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Chronicle, wherever you can get a good list.  Find the ones you think you want and check them out thoroughly before you spend your hard-earned money.  Then go.

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San Francisco Writers Conference

I just attended the SF Writers Conference for 2018 and it was fabulous.  There were multiple tracks for fiction writers, non-fiction writers, memoir writers, poets, self-publishers, marketers—something for everyone.  For poets, one highlight was the keynote speech by Dana Goia, current poet laureate of California.  He spoke eloquently about creation and read a few poems.  He really knew how to inspire us.  I’d not been to this conference before and my main goal was to get my feet grounded in this conference to understand how speed-dating worked, how pitching worked, and practice.  When my novel is ready next year, I’ll feel much more confident; meanwhile, I received a couple of “nibbles” to send pages or a query when I’m ready.  Most encouraging.  As a result, I spent less time on poetry tracks, although I did have a 15-20 minute conference with Diane Frank, both poet and novelist.  She was most encouraging and she, too, offered me support on my novel based on its premise.
Writers conferences are a great blessing—from the small to the large, from the unknown to the famous.  They provide a writers’ community; learning opportunities from experts; connections to editors, publishers, coaches, and others; a sense of the latest trends; and, if you’re lucky, an opportunity to meet someone with the same sensibility, someone who can work with you in future through a writing group (online or in person).
Writers conferences are listed in a number of places, e.g., Poets & Writers (sign up for the e-newsletter if you can’t afford a subscription), Writers Digest (again, same set-up), Association of Writers & Writing Programs (same set-up), and lists through a standard Google search.  Get on the e-mail lists and you’ll get brochures in the mail, as well.  Costs vary, but events local to you will probably be your cheapest option.  The key is to connect and stay connected.  It will enrich your writing life.
Image credit:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Writing

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Writing and Grammar

I confess to being a grammar nut (or is it “Nazi”?) and, what’s worse, I’m proud of it.  I don’t have any problem with writing that incorporates bad grammar in dialogue or even, in some circumstances, in the author’s own words, but only if the author chooses to write that way on purpose.

 

Language is one of the tools of our craft and we need to know the correct way or ways to use it, even if we have characters that ask “do you want to lay down?” or claim that something happens “between you and I” (my personal pet peeves).  We need to know what language we choose and why.  Without that underlying purpose, we’re simply writing badly.

 

My college-age students often tell me it doesn’t matter, but I don’t buy this idea.  I’m happy to explain–twenty times twenty, if necessary–various grammar concepts from subject-verb agreement to the difference between the verbs lay and lie.  The problem is that some incorrect grammar structures are now embedded so firmly in the colloquial language that people think they’re correct.  Present them with the truly correct structure and it sounds wrong to them.  One perspective is to see this as a step towards language evolution, but, until it’s an approved element of the language, it’s not correct and we should use incorrect language only on purpose and not through ignorance.

 

My favorite grammar books include children’s books by Lynne Truss (good for all ages–they’re fun!):

 

  • Eats, shoots & leaves (commas)
  • The Girl’s Like Spaghetti (apostrophes)
  • Twenty-odd Ducks (hyphens, parentheses, quotation marks, periods, and more)

 

These fabulous books help with grammar in ways that kids and adults can enjoy.  If you want a more adult approach to punctuation, try Truss’ adult book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation or Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-lighted Sentences:  A Guide to Avoiding the Most Common Errors in Grammar and Punctuation, which explains basic concepts in clear, well-written prose.

 

Image from:  https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-grammar-concept-word-cloud-background-pastel-blurred-backgrou-image49594862
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New Year and Writing Resolutions

Here we are again, just over a week after the start of a new year, and deciding whether or not to make resolutions.  For me, that means writing resolutions.  I suspect that a primary writing resolution (if you make one) is to spend more time writing, which means giving writing higher priority.  Sometimes this is possible; sometimes not.  Work, family, other needs claim attention.
As someone who’s worked her whole life, I also know that while work claims time, the structure of work offers help.  If you know you have only half an hour to write, you write.  If you have all day, drifting is definitely possible.
This year, I plan to end my formal job in mid-August.  I want to write more, not sandwich writing between other demands.  Can I do that effectively?  Just as I love reading, but can’t read 24/7, I love writing, but can’t write 24/7.  I also need to get out in the world for stimulation and renewal of ideas.
But I also need structure and my resolution this year is to set that structure to make sure that my desire to write is matched by my actual practice.

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Writing Time: Perception vs. Reality

Here we are in the week between year-end holidays and, if we’re lucky, we are on holiday between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.  For years, I worked and envied those who were off, but for several years now, my time has been my own and I feel sorry for those who have to squeeze holiday “days” into work life.  In addition, my children are grown and gone, although I am grateful for their visits and welcome them as often as they have time and are willing to come.  My thoughts turn to writing, but…what happens next?
I suffer from what my late mother used to describe as “having eyes bigger than my tummy.”  This no longer applies to food, although I admit to overeating at this time of year.  Now, it applies to goals.  In the past, I’ve planned to finish A and B and C and make a start on D.  Of course, I never completed my list, leaving me frustrated.  This year, I’m going with the flow—writing daily without “must finish” deadlines, and enjoying my process.  Today’s Boxing Day (Tues., Dec. 26), and I’ve been writing this way since last Friday (Dec. 22).  I’ve found my rhythm, I’m accomplishing more, and I’m enjoying it more (the true test).  Why don’t you join me?

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Inspiration from my Scholar OLLI students

For the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of leading a class called “Writing in All Forms” for Scholar OLLI on the Concord Campus of California State University, East Bay.  For those who don’t know, OLLI stands for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  The founder, Bernard Osher, makes grants from his foundation to provide noncredit courses to adults over 50.  There are OLLIs all over the U.S. and if anyone can claim a legacy, it’s Bernard Osher.  He promotes endless learning, not just for attendees, but for class leaders, too.
My class is filled with fabulous writers and I’m not the teacher, I’m the leader/guide. I learn as much as the people who attend.  Each session lasts only five weeks (there are three each academic year) and they whip by at a rate faster than Mach 1 because we have so much fun critiquing our writing and talking about our craft.  The class includes novelists and memoirists and poets and short story writers.  Attendees write every type of work from gut-wrenching to humor.  They’re fabulous.  And the stories they have to tell—in whatever form they choose—are amazing.  I learn about their unique lives and marvel at their gifts.
I’m deeply grateful at being offered the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful program.  It’s improved my own writing, given me a community of writers, and blessed me than I could have imagined.
 
 

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Poetry in the Time of Holidays

I have a love/hate relationship with holidays.  On the love side, summer holidays enable me to engage with new experiences that work their way into my writing sooner or later (I call it experiential research).  In fall/winter, I see family and friends more often and connect through annual cards with the people I don’t normally see from year to year.  I recall and reflect on past experiences that also work their way into my writing eventually.
On the hate side, I eat too much after swearing I won’t and, more importantly, watch my writing practice slip off its organized rails.  During summer, I travel and I collapse with sensory overload at day’s end. In winter, I either juggle social gatherings or nest.
Determined to keep up my writing practice this fall, I signed up for NaNoWriMo.  Writing 50,000 words in a month should keep me moving.  For December, I’ve already written an “appointment” in my calendar and set an “alert,” not one, but two.  This year, I’ll see if it works.
I have long advocated a daily writing practice to my creative writing students and I’ve argued that you can accomplish a lot, even in as few as 15 minutes a day.  The trick is to put in those 15 minutes, no matter what the season.
 
 

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Seamus Heaney’s Home Place

Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of visiting a small museum dedicated to Seamus Heaney.  Located in Bellaghy in Ulster, “home” place is exactly the right term for this very special place.  Museums don’t have to be large to be effective and I found that, in Ireland and Northern Ireland, there are many small museums that are amazingly effective, often more so than their large and famous counterparts.
The area around Bellaghy was Heaney’s home and an inspiration and source for his writing.  The lower floor is devoted to an exhibition about Heaney, but upstairs are two important spaces.  One is for children (most museums I visited in Ireland and Northern Ireland were devoted to providing space for children to explore and create).  The other is for the words of Heaney himself.  You can listen to him reading many of his poems and I spent as much time as possible letting his words in his own voice wash over me.  They are printed, if you want to follow along, but I found that his voice in my ears was worth more than any word on the page.
I have read Heaney’s work many times over the years and was privileged to hear him live as he read his work once at the University of Michigan.  Regardless of the number of visitors, as I sat on the upper floor of the museum, putting on head set after head set, I could retreat into his world, his words, his voice.
Links:
Biography and links to some poems, podcasts, videos, and articles:  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/seamus-heaney
“Digging” on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNRkPU1LSUg
Seamus Heaney in conversation with Michael Laskey, fellow poet and co-founder of the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. This is an edited version of an interview recorded live at the Poetry Prom 2010 organised by The Poetry Trust.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/75876/seamus-heaney
 

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Writing at the Beach

There’s something about a beach that changes us.  We “un-lax” as opposed to relax, letting go of all but the most basic elements of our lives.  We wake, eat, sleep, walk the beach, go in the water (if it’s not too cold), and generally let time take care of itself.
[Image credit:  http://globe-views.com/dreams/surprise.html]
And then there’s writing.  I took a week to go to the beach and write.  I doubt any of this will be Pulitzer-prize winning prose, but my goal is to complete a messy first draft of Part II of my novel before I leave here.  I came with about 90 pages and I’d like to go home with about 160-170 pages—enough to enable me to start shaping what I hope will be a good novel in the end.
Today, the temperature’s going up to 97F (clearly an off-shore wind), so I anticipate sweltering through the day, but the house I borrowed (such kind friends) has a cooler downstairs, so I may spend the afternoon in the gloom of the lower level in order to keep writing.  And that’s the key—keep writing.  Don’t go back and fix.  Don’t decide to change direction (or change direction but don’t go back and “fix” what came before).  Just keep going.  What happens next?
I completed the first part of the novel intermittently.  I still work full-time and I have to sliver my time into slots to keep going.  I decided this wasn’t the best way to operate for Part II, so I’ve taken the plunge (literally) and am determined to write the worst draft ever of Part II before I head for home in the middle of next week.
Sometimes, I get stuck, but then I remember something I learned from Ellen Sussman at a recent writing camp:  the rule of 3.  If you’re stuck, write 3 possible options for what happens next, even if those options are the most outlandish possible.  Surprise yourself, which is the key, isn’t it?  Surprise yourself.  If you don’t, you don’t surprise your reader and nothing keeps a reader going than being surprised into turning another page.  Thank you, kind friends.  Thank you, Ellen Sussman.  Your gifts make my writing possible.

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