Sunday, August 10, 2008

Writing about... Writing!

I have been spending some time reading about two of my favourite things: language and writing.

I read Mark Abley’s “The Prodigal Tongue” (book #123) and Ruth Wajnryb’s “Expletive Deleted: a good look at bad language” (book #128), as well as “The Maeve Binchy Writers’ Club” (guess who wrote it?) (book #130) and a writing book called “Writing Motherhood” by Lisa Garrigues (which doesn’t have a number yet cause I haven’t finished reading it).

I’m a little addicted to books about how to write. One day I plan to write one myself, in fact. (Maybe not now. My grandmother has told me not to even THINK about making jam this summer because of how busy everything is. I am reminded of the joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.) I think that this addiction to books about writing is a natural offshoot of the addiction to books. Whenever I’m faced with some kind of problem, my first instinct is to research it. Go to the library and get a book! Go to the internet and google it! Read! The information is out there; all I have to do is find it.

So when I wanted to make jam I didn’t ask my mother or my grandmother (except for some help, which my mother offered in the form of these immortal words: “Julie, paranoia will destroy ya.”). Oh, no, dear reader, I went and bought a book. Same with knitting.

I tell myself that buying books on the writing process is an investment. I am a teacher; I teach writing; these books are resources. And they are, certainly. More than that, though, I feel like a prospector. Surely in all this there will be a lump of gold. Surely there will be a secret in here that I didn’t know, which will open to me and my students the gates of the kingdom. Ann Lamott’s writing book, “Bird by Bird” (book #36) did offer me something I didn’t already know, as well as the helpfully descriptive phrase I used on my writing students at the time: “Shitty first drafts.”

As for the books on language, how can anyone fail to be astounded by it? Language is the thing that separates us from the animals: language is the one thing without which virtually no other human endeavour is possible.

Like swearing.

The best part of Wajnryb’s little book (besides the fact that it was five bucks on the remainders table at Chapters) was the chapter subtitles: she’s re-imagined all these critical moments as if the people involved had really spoken – as, in fact, they probably did speak. So we have Joan of Arc quoted as saying “I don’t suppose it’s gonna fucking rain, is it?” and Julius Caesar exclaiming “Fucking hell, Brutus, not you too!”

Mark Abley wrote about how English is changing in an international arena: he says that English is the new Latin, from which all new language will spring. What a wonderful thought. He also introduced me to, where new and exciting words are posted every minute (or so it seems) and people can vote, a la Wikipedia, on whether or not they accept those new words as words. Some of the new constructions Abley discusses are things I can’t quite get behind (“Off the lights” instead of “Turn off the lights”) but others are so fresh and so much fun that I kind of hope they catch on. One of the things that struck me about his book was that in every language he discussed there were purists (people not unlike me, I imagine) sitting in the wings and screaming with fear and anger that the holy of holies, the Mother Tongue, was being tampered with. What Abley said was, essentially, that these people can scream all they want, but language is going to change anyway.

To which I now say, foshizzle, man.

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