Not too long ago I was asked to be a visiting writer in a technical writing class on grammar and usage. I was nervous about the Q&A because I dangle the shit out of my modifiers, never know when to hyphenate or not a compound adjective, and frequently use the wrong they’re/their/there despite knowing better. So I made a lots of notes, in case I needed to distract people from everything I don’t know during the Q&A.
The visit led to a really interesting conversation and I appreciated the chance to articulate what I think sentences can do and how.
I began my writing life as a poet, which means I think the purpose of writing is as much to disrupt sense, rearrange sense, and reimagine sense as it is to make sense. To that end, I find agrammatical structures as interesting as grammatical ones. What kinds of truth do double negatives make possible that a positive statement does not? How can you jolt a reader out of their preconceived notions by breaking with parallelism? How can you make something unlikely seem inevitable by maintaining parallelism? Lately I’ve been embracing run-on sentences, because I’m writing about symbioses and I like the way run-ons kind of create a symbiotic merger of two distinct organisms that can’t live without each other. I also have been embracing sentence fragments because I’m writing about loss and grief and somehow the grammar of incompleteness rings more true at times than a sentence that knows how to finish itself.
One exercise I sometimes try when I’m writing is to mess up a sentence’s grammar and see what that does, try to notice what is lost or gained in the process. Another exercise is to do a sentence length and style check. I make a slash in red ink after each sentence and if those slashes are happening at extremely regular intervals, I know I need to mix up my sentence length and structure to create a more interesting variety in the piece. My default sentence mode is approximately 15 words of a declarative sentence set off with a subordinate clause. Too many of those in a row becomes very tedious, so I try to let some sentences get decadently long; turn others into short punchy short declarations. Sometimes this habit of charting my sentences leads moves me towards questions or to combing ideas I hadn’t thought of as intertwined. Changing the sentence structures changes my thinking and can steer a piece in surprising new directions.
I also try to notice when I’ve smoothed out the dialect I use in spoken speech. For example, too often I unthinkingly dumb down my rhetoric because “girls” and people from working class backgrounds are often discouraged from “putting on airs.” My grammar sometimes reveals how deeply internalized those problematic lessons from childhood were. When editing I am sometimes am glad to see I have pulled away from jargon and sometimes I realize I need to remove more jargon still. But other times I see value in leaning into the suppressed impulse to be arch and erudite. There’s something to be said for seeing a woman confidently assert understanding of a deep and nuanced body of knowledge. To see her taunt reply guys and dare the mansplainers.
I’ve also noticed that I tend to default to editing away some unique grammatical constructions from my childhood in Missouri – saying “stoved up” about sore muscles or using double negatives like “never anymore.” A lot of these are beautifully poetic expressions and I’m luck to have been raised among them.
I was taught throughout much of my education to edit out equivocations like “I think,” “I believe,” or “I feel.” Sometimes that lesson came along with the observation that women in particular tend to equivocate this way and we need to be more assertive in our rhetoric, like men. I bought into this for awhile, but these days I’m not particularly interested in writing more like men, and I’m definitely not interested in generating a relentless stream of cocksure certainty. I’d suggest that we might consider what our writing could do for the world if more writers acknowledged their subjectivities and the limitations of their knowing by saying “I think” instead of “it is a true fact that” from time to time.
Attending to passive and active voice is another way grammar can shape a writer’s habits of thinking. For example, I now do rigorous passive/active voice checks of my drafts to see where I’m letting someone (possibly myself) off the hook who should be held accountable. I notice that white writers in particular tend to slip into the passive voice when they are discussing racism. I certainly saw this tick in my own writing when I was working on The Witch of Eye. In my first drafts of an essay on the Salem witch trials, to give one example, I would say something like “Tituba’s daughter was taken,” when what I needed to say was “Samuel Parris, the abusive slavemaster, took Tituba’s daughter.”
Another effect my training as a poet has had on the way I write prose is that I attend closely to silence. I often think about paragraphs as stanzas and wonder how a paragraph break might be used to create a juxtaposition or a sense of rupture. How can the silence of a paragraph break here or there invite a reader into collaborative meditation with the writer? A lot of grammatical rules and conventional rhetorical strategies are designed to convince a reader or just carry a reader along in a narrative flow. In my prose I am usually reaching for the opposite of flow – I am reaching for something that jolts the reader awake and into awareness of their own mind and their own thoughts. Grammar can help in this endeavor too, but it requires that I pay attention to grammar not as a system of rules to memorize, but as a variety of strategies to use in the ways I deem best.