Monday, September 20, 2010

Writing: easier than harvesting sand spurs?

I don't think writers truly understand the fear non-writers have for creating words. I have some idea -- if you want to turn me into a puddle of jelly, all you have to do is to demand the answer of 112 divided by 4, or the product of 36 and 9.

But just as math-geared minds think, "Pfft! Of course that's 28, and the product is 324," we writers go, "Pfft! A 200-word essay on the importance of being earnest? Easy-peasy."

(Of course, I'd actually groan, because whoever heard of being able to explain the importance of being earnest in just 200 measly words?)

I taught a lesson on writing to a group of third graders last week, and this fear was brought home to me all over again. Not only were these kids terrified to put something down, but they were also terrified that their ideas weren't good enough.

The Sister, a teacher of some 20 years experience, nodded sagely as I conveyed this. "I'd rather spend all day pulling sand spurs* out of a patch of grass than I would write a paragraph," she admitted.

What? This was news to me. My sister is a smart woman, extremely capable, one who graduated cum laude from college. When I pressed her for more details, she said, "Well, I'm just afraid that the commas will all be in the wrong place."

Commas?! Commas?! She's letting mechanics get in the way of a wonderfully creative mind? She's letting grammar grind her to a halt?

Okay, I have an additional confession to admit. I never minded grammar. I, in fact, loved diagramming sentences. I loved it so much that I never got called on to diagram sentences on the board because the teacher saw that I wasn't terrified by it, and therefore I deprived her of her buzz. (OK, that's not fair, but that's how I saw it in high school.)

But even so, not everything I write is perfectly grammatically correct on the first pass. That's what revision is for. A grammar check is the final polish.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in grammar. I will hunt you down over the loftily uttered, "between you and I" mistake (prepositional phrases take an objective, not nominative, pronoun), and subject-verb errors leave me itching.

But until you get the framework done, until you get the blank page filled, I'm not going to worry your little head about conventions or grammar or mechanics. Then, once I know what you're trying to say, I'll help you say it better and point you toward a grammar handbook.

Yeah. That's when you worry about commas.

*Sand spurs defined for Yankees: Sandspur or sandbur is a grass plant that produces a sticker that can really get under your skin, as so aptly defined by the University of Florida IFAS Extension Agency.


Kelly Breakey said...

Grammar can be your friend. It's not mine, but it could be.

Linda G. said...

When I was a kid, we used test our courage by walking barefoot through a sticker patch. (What can I say? We were young and dumb.)

Also, I had to close my eyes during your math problem portion of the post. I can't take math this early in the day. ;)

Piedmont Writer said...

That's what revisions are for, or at least I've been told. My comma's are always in the wrong place.

Maybe you should tell your students that you're not 'counting' punctuation or grammar, you just want them to free-write. They have to come up with 'something' otherwise it will 'count'. You know.

Up north we call them burrs.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I like grammar about as much as sandspurs. But I have an equal love of writing and math, so go figure.

Yay for you for helping the third graders! I was helping second graders last week, and boy do those kids like to erase. Nothing's ever quite right to them.

I think maybe they will be grammarians. :)

Lickety Splitter said...

I love free thought writing, but I always hated spot on writing assignments. My thoughts aren't available on command, and they are extremely chaotic. I always compared any official term paper assignment to cleaning out my closet. The thought of either activity would break me out in hives, but I always got through it, made very satisfactory As, and I even got shiny stars in Spanish class! My Spanish teacher loved my quirky style. Ha ha. Now, I only write to amuse myself, which is the quintessential liberal experience!