Writing about writing

I sometimes call myself an “accidental grammarian.” I’m known for books and articles about grammar, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about grammar and which parts of it are and aren’t useful to writers. But, really, I am a writer—or “Scribe” as my business card says. And I’ve written as much about style and structure and narration and dramatic tension as I have about syntax. An article in the current issue of The Writer paints a pretty good portrait of the whole me, grammarian and otherwise. That the profile is something I’m comfortable with is a credit to the reporter, Elfrieda Abbe, who has previously been my editor. Because I know and trust her, and because Elfrieda is a good listener as well as a good questioner, we delved into sensitive areas I don’t much talk about—like how hard, really, it is to try to carve a life out as a writer, and the kinds of trade-offs I have made to keep doing it. I mention the profile not out of vanity, but because I think it’s important that we writers speak honestly about “success,” money, and sacrifice, as well as the joys of the craft. But also, I want to let you know about this issue because the magazine, founded in 1887, was purchased this fall by Madavor Media. The new team is giving the magazine a boost of fresh energy. Editor Alicia Anstead, a colleague from my days at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, said in an email that the magazine’s mission remains the same: “to support writers in their craft.” She promises to do that through smart profiles, success stories, social media savvy, tips, and material that is provocative for “people who think about, live by, and aspire to achieve success through writing.” Writing about writing is tough. On the one hand you want to be helpful and accessible. On the other hand, you want to be smart and sophisticated—you want to inspire readers. I love it when writing about writing makes the reader feel smart, and appeals to the genuine word lover. I’m especially fond of the Draft series in the New York Times Opinionator. Those posts walk the fine line between low-brow and high-. They reflect a mix of perspectives and they strike a tone appropriate for Times readers, who are on their toes (the comments are as good as the essays). If you’d like to dip into the “Draft” series, start with “The Art of Being Still.” Silas House advises writers to stop talking about writing—or about not writing—and just get the work done. Silas advises to take time away from the chatter of conferences and the endless dithering of social media. “We must learn how to be still in our heads,” he writes, “to achieve the sort of stillness that allows our senses to become heightened. The wonderful nonfiction writer Joyce Dyer refers to this as seeing like an animal. To see like an animal. How is that for a New Year’s resolution? Of course, most writers need community and inspiration as well as solitude and stillness.  For years I’ve been dreaming of a writers retreat at one of my favorite spots on the planet, Mokule‘ia Beach, on Oahu’s North Shore, where I grew up. Good news! A high-school friend is now executive director of a low-key, low-budge camp there, and we have developed a five-day retreat for writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and the memoir. From April 7 through 12 we will gather with others interested in exploring a sense of place in their work. I will be joined by wonderful writing teachers as well as cultural legends who will share insights on Native Hawaiian composition and poetry. If Hawaiian music and dance isn’t enough, our creative impulses will be set in motion with yoga, swimming, kayaking, beach walks, and a visit to Pu‘u O Mahuka Heiau, a well-preserved ancient Hawaiian temple. For information visit my Web site or email me. Thanks for reading this far. I have some surprises up my sleeve for 2013, and I hope you’ll keep visiting this site. But more important: Keep writing!    

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4 Responses to Writing about writing

  1. Heather Villa (@HeatherVilla1) January 8, 2013 at 9:30 pm #

    I had no idea that The Writer magazine was founded in 1887. Last week I read the article that Elfrieda Abbe wrote about you, titled “Hale verbs well met.” I love reading about writers and writing. Thanks for this post.

  2. Mackenzie Kelly January 14, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    Look at is and are in the following pair;
    The wages of sin is death.
    The wages of sin are death.
    Neither sounds right to me, but maybe there is an alternate.
    A pause.
    The wages of sin – Death.


  3. Jack Miller January 16, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    I’m just wondering–how is it that you can put this comma in the middle of the sentence? The clause is not independent, I don’t think. “I love it when writing about writing makes the reader feel smart, and appeals to the genuine word lover.”
    I’m a fair weather student of grammar, too, and just curious about that one little comma. Thanks.

    • Constance Hale January 21, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

      Jack, great question. The answer depends on how much of a stickler you are. The punctuation bosses tell us that that sentence has a compound predicate (the subject is “writing about writing” and the predicates begin with “makes” and “appeals”) and that there is no comma before the “and” when it’s a compound predicate.

      Or, alternatively, that no comma is required because those are not independent clauses on each side, as you stated.

      And yet sometimes the writer intends–wants–a pause. I might have stuck a dash in there, treating the back half of the sentence like an aside. But I stuck in a comma, something less dramatic than a pause but more dramatic than a space.

      If this were a grammar test, you’d get a gold star and I’d get a scowl for writing that sentence. But I give writers a little more wiggle room than grammar teachers or copy editors or style manuals might. I’ve heard that the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, infuriated by changes to a script, once said, indignantly, to an editor, “You don’t understand: I *wrote* that comma.” I don’t much like Eszterhas’s films, so I find his attitude pretentious, but the idea of writers “writing” commas still delights me.

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