What is Good Writing? Grammar and My Grandmother
I frequently call myself a wounded writer. Even now in middle age, I can still hear my grade 11 English teacher say, You'll never be a writer, and I can still hear other teachers and professors declare that my writing was mediocre, awkward, incoherent, faulty, loose, and fragmented. I am still learning to value my writing. For a long time as a school teacher, I recapitulated the harsh evaluation practices I had experienced in classrooms. I have now been teaching for more than two decades (the past twelve years in a Faculty of Education), and in all my attitudes and practices I now seek to nurture writers by acknowledging the value in their writing. I tell my students that in their writing, they are not competing with one another or with an idealized model paper hidden in my head. So often evaluation is perceived as a way to order and categorize and compare. I think evaluation should be done for the good of the person evaluated, and for no other reason. Evaluation ought to nurture and challenge writers. I will not teach with the expectation that some people must fail or must receive low grades. Over a decade ago I taught a university writing course as a graduate assistant. Prior to beginning the course I was informed by the department head that I had to have a certain number of B's on my grade sheet. My thirty students demonstrated a strong commitment to their writing, and the course experience was a memorable one for all of us, but I painstakingly met the administrator's expectation concerning a range of grades, even though I felt that I was being unfair to my students. I still feel badly about this. Now I refuse to acquiesce to bureaucratic expectations that students cannot all enjoy resounding success in their writing when the writing is significant for them. The root of "evaluation" is "value." Evaluation is a process of valuing the writer and the writing, acknowledging the value in both. I seek to encourage others to know the power of words in their lives.
WHAT IS GOOD WRITING?
For a long time I have been asking my teacher education and graduate
students, "What is good writing?" The responses comprise a long list, including:
My students ask, "How are you going to evaluate our writing? How do you know what is good?" I reply, "Good writing is writing that gives you or somebody else pleasure, and/or gets the job done."
Everybody is different. Everybody is starting where he or she is. There is no doubt that I like some students' writing more than others, but why should I be the arbiter of taste in the classroom? I am liberal with praise in evaluating students' writing. My students tease me about how often I use "splendid" or encourage them to celebrate their accomplishments. I do not think that I can evaluate writing according to a standard measure. It might be possible to develop a yard-stick by measuring the distance from a king's nose to his big toe, and enshrining that distance in a bar of gold forevermore, but writing has no such standard measure. What is good writing? The answers are multiple, and dependent on the eye of the writer and the reader. Good writing is writing that people care about, writing that gives pleasure, writing that touches hearts and minds and souls, writing that desires readers and nurtures desire in readers. My students revel in the praise that I offer. As one student said recently, "You invite us to write, and tell us to write about whatever we want, and praise us, and the next thing you know we are busting our butts to write the best stuff we've ever written." As a writer I am a human be/com/ing writing myself and inviting others to be written by my words, as I also invite other human be/com/ings to share their writing as they write themselves and help write me.
I am convinced that most people lack confidence in their writing. I do not know why, but I suspect that experiences with writing in school and university contribute a great deal to this lack of confidence. Certainly my students tell me many horror stories about responses to their writing in school and university classrooms, responses that have undermined their confidence as writers. Their stories reverberate with echoes of my stories. I am convinced that language use is integrally connected to our existence as people. Yet our experiences with language too often constrain us and impair us. In school we are caught up in the hoity-toity game of elitist emphasis on correct usage, even though correct usage is nothing more than a convention that some people have decided will be valued, a convention that will change with time and other consensual agreements. As a writer in school I was so neurotically concerned about comma usage that I cared little for what I actually wrote. The content was not nearly as significant as the neatly embroidered container.
GRAMMAR AND GRAMARYE
Evaluation of students' writing is often focused on issues of grammar. For the first forty years of my life I had an inadequate understanding of the word grammar. I understood grammar to mean the science of language, or a set of rules, or a system of standards or general principles, or a compendium of preferred and prescribed forms. I understood grammar in the way I had learned grammar in school, but I had never learned the etymology of grammar, and I did not know its roots. An etymological dig in several dictionaries reveals that the word grammar is derived from the word gramarye which is now called an archaic word related to the old French gramaire or learning. Gramarye means magic, occult knowledge, alchemy, necromancy, and enchantment. Now I want to use this new (or old) notion of grammar to support a poetic return to language that subverts and disrupts and eructs and deconstructs, always playful, always purposeful. Instead of trying to construct a grammar of rules and categories and standards and forms, the kind of grammar that aims to close down wildness and chaos, and excludes more than it includes, I want to pursue gramarye which invites mystery and openness and poetry, the firm belief that what is known are flickering points of light lining a vast unknown without beginning or ending, always more to know, always more to be known.
When we speak about grammar we often confuse three basic but distinct meanings. First, there is inscriptive grammar, the foundational organizing structure of language which allows language users to communicate with one another. We learn this structure intuitively. Therefore, even a young child does not say, "going to with the my store am parents I." We do not teach this inscriptive grammar. We learn it early as we first learn to use the language. Second, there is descriptive grammar which is the kind of grammar that I spent a great deal of time learning when I was in school. Descriptive grammar refers to a knowledge of linguistic terminology and rules so that a student can parse a sentence in its constituent parts and label the parts. Third, there is a prescriptive grammar which emphasizes standard academic usage and correctness. This is what most people mean when they make comments like, "Schools don't teach grammar anymore." Russell Tabbert calls prescriptive grammar "'linguistic etiquette,' the rules of 'proper' verbal manners which tell us what to do to be correct but most frequently what to avoid" (1984, p. 39). Prescriptive grammar has a stranglehold on schools where it is believed that everyone must speak and write the language in precisely the same ways. This is where my biggest complaint about grammar instruction comes in. Schools cannot teach inscriptive grammar. Such knowledge is gained intuitively and unconsciously through use at a young age. There is a limited value in learning descriptive grammar unless it is explored in the context of a linguistic curriculum as a useful kind of knowledge that we can acquire. A knowledge of descriptive grammar is not going to improve significantly a student's writing because writing comes from a desire to say something, not a knowledge of how to parse sentences and label the parts. Finally, the emphasis on prescriptive grammar in schools is probably more responsible than any other factor for the wounded and apathetic and uncommitted writers that are graduated from schools every year. Most writers are so afraid to make a mistake, so afraid to look foolish, so afraid of the teacher's red pencil that they do not take the risks in their writing or make the personal investment in their writing that is necessary in order to develop as writers with confidence and a keen sense of voice.
My children bring me their assignments with the comments of their teachers. Often the teachers' comments are incorrect. One teacher wrote "comma splice" in the margin, but there was no comma splice. The sentence was correctly written. Another teacher rejects "incomplete" sentences, even though realwriters use "incomplete" sentences all the time. The challenge of teaching prescriptive grammar is that the English language is dynamic and organic, always changing. It is impossible to prescribe the rules for "correct" English language use because the word "use" is really not a noun at all, but a verb in constant process. What happens in so many writing classes is that writing is stunted by a dictatorial attitude that wants to protect convention and tradition.
A simple question that has to be asked is how are we going to most successfully use the time that we have in a writing class. I am not suggesting that grammar instruction is not important. My grade seven students called me Mr. Grammar because I was excited about grammar and invited them into the excitement. I am writing a collection of poems about grammar, and I find immense interest in reading grammar handbooks. But I am also convinced that I really learn about grammar in the context of my writing, as opposed to the approach that was taken with me in school where I learned descriptive and prescriptive grammar, and then had no time left to actually write anything other than boring lists of sentences that needed grammatical correction.
What is so terrible about making errors? Why do we want our students to write and for whom? I am concerned about the neurotic attention to errors. A few years ago at the beginning of a new course for English teachers, one student presented a report with a few notes on the chalkboard. Her presentation was insightful and engaging. She spelled a word incorrectly. When she finished speaking and invited questions, the first response from a classmate was to point out the spelling error. Surely there is a time for error detection and eradication, and a time for ignoring errors or at least postponing the attention. If I wanted to spend my time detecting errors in writing, I am sure I would have no problem living a busy, even if wasted, life. There are rules of grammar and grammatical terms that are useful, even necessary, to teach, but they can be taught fairly quickly in the context of the writing process, as they are needed. Teaching grammar with meticulous attention to rules will not improve writing, but teaching writing with a sense of wonder, with a sense of grammar as magic, will nurture both writers and writing.
LESSONS FROM MY GRANDMOTHER
Why do teachers wield a red pencil with such gloating delight? Why do we regard a typo as an unsightly booger visible in the nose? What is that keen thrill of delight which airs lightly on the skin when we spot a misspelled word, an incorrect use of verb tense, a nonstandard use of the dash? What is really important--correctness of language use or constancy of language use? My concern is that people do not write because they are afraid of making mistakes, the kind of mistakes that teachers delight in highlighting and exposing.
My grandmother wrote me a letter, dated September 18, 1972. I have carried the letter with me through numerous moves. My grandmother left school in grade six. When she wrote the letter she was about seventy years old. If I evaluated her letter as a teacher I would probably point out that she does not practise the conventions of capitalization, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, and paragraph development. Her penmanship is at times almost illegible. The letter rambles with references to family and weather and television and meals and the pet dog. If I were to evaluate my grandmother's letter with my teacher's red pencil, I might throw up my arms in dismay, but I treasure the letter because it sings with my grandmother's voice, even now, more than two decades after her death, even as it sang the first time I read it. And so I have included her letter in my collection of poems, View from My Mother's House (1999). With her love she taught me:
September 18 1972
well Carl my son
I had to write ye a few lines its in the night now I am bad enough in the day I suppose ye are getting settled away by now we had a lovely day here today how is poor Kathy Wendy got her jacket come it is some nice she loves the school not a bit strange ye think she was going all the time she takes her dinner ye know what she takes tin of drink pack of chips cheesies bar comes home filled right up she bars herself in her room to learn her lessons you know theres nothing undone the only thing she dont stay up so long in the night I suppose poor Paul is all dried up by now I dont know if I told you that Jerry is going to St Johns Friday on the bus there is two or three of them going poor fellow Effie said she didnt like to keep him from everything he is coming back on Sunday I dont know what time he will get in but one of them got a sister there but he will be right up with ye and Willie your mother told him to go in and stay there on till ye comes he will see Sandy when he gets there first I guess she will go with him to show him where ye are to Fanny said she didnt see ye when she was away I guess that ye were out somewhere your mother and father was some glad when they got their letter and ye know your grandmother wasnt sad Ringo stays in where Wendy is learning her lesson in her room it wont be too long please God before ye will be home for a little while some good remember me to poor Kathy your mother takes her little walk same as usual so long
I hear my grandmother's voice in her letter, even now as I first heard it in 1972. I feel my grandmother's love in her letter, even now as I felt it in 1972. Writing with desire, not correct usage, fires good writing. My grandmother was a good writer. I seek to live by the lessons of my grandmother.
Leggo, Carl. (1999). View from My Mother's House. St. John's: Killick Press.
Tabbert, Russell. (1984). "Parsing the Question: 'Why Teach Grammar?'" English Journal 73.8, pp. 38-42.