Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Never mind the boring old spelling, grammar and punctuation, kiddies, just be creative": the aftermath

If one is engaged to teach creative writing -- and I don't mean technical writing or professional writing, I mean graduate courses in creative writing, ie with students who already have a university degree -- one will almost certainly find oneself, eventually and of necessity, spending hours teaching students about dangling participles, dangling modifiers, squinting modifiers and other ghouls and monsters of the deep dark grammatical forest. This fact is something I have known for many years.

Teaching grammar is torture for all concerned, but in this era what's even worse is the reluctant, resistant and generally bolshie attitude manifested by some -- not all, but some -- of the people on the receiving end. They seem to think you are trying to inflict on them some moral imperative when all you're really trying to do is get them to be realistic and pragmatic: if you want to be a writer, then you need to acquire the technique and the tools of the craft, because if you don't write good English, people won't publish your work.

I'm motivated to be as patient and helpful as I can in this thankless task by the still-vivid memory of my own grammatical baptism of fire, being hurled at the age of twelve into French and German classes taught by a European woman to whom it did not once occur that when she based her lessons on our assumed familiarity with the nominative, accusative and dative cases, none of us had a clue what she was talking about.

No matter how much they pay you for toiling in this thistly, thorny, stony corner of the pedagogical vineyard, it isn't enough. Or, to put it another way: "After enjoying a few chapters of the latest Harlan Coben, the marking was hard graft."

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

Perhaps your Creative Writing students feel the same way about grammar etc as Ampersand Duck does about design ie " I think formal training would have locked me in a box that would have been hard to get out of, so while part of my brain suspects that I'm woefully amateur, another part treasures the fact that I'm a bit of a wildflower instead of a hothouse flower. "


Then again, they could just be lazy so-and-so's.

cheers
BS

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh, I'm sure they do, and indeed that's what I'm complaining about, because I don't think A. Duck's situation is comparable. Learning the use of the language one wants to be a writer in doesn't really 'lock one in a box'. In fact it's the reverse; the box is unlocked. As people learn how language works, they can do more and more with it. I don't know enough about A. Duck's field to tell, but I'm fairly sure there's no equivalent in graphic art and letterpress printing for bad grammar and incoherent sentences.

Laziness is one thing I'm sure it's not about, though. As my title suggests, I think this is an attitude that was prevalent in schools over the last few decades and those exposed to it have, not surprisingly, internalised it. What I find frustrating is that it's a false dichotomy. Understanding how language works does not pre-empt imagination and originality. Quite the reverse: it enables them.

As far as writing technique is concerned, it's not really a matter of what students "feel". As I have deeply shocked many students over the years by saying, I'm not interested in what they feel; my concern as a teacher is with what they know. If they want to be free spirits, then they would do much better to save the massive university fees and go their merry ways. When they don't, it's my job to teach them technique and craft. Which is all I CAN teach them, as, sadly, one cannot teach people to have talent. Much less genius.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Also, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating -- which is to say that A. Duck's work is very beautiful, but feral commas and squinting modifiers are not.

meli said...

I think grammar is great. I didn't have a clue about it till I rather belatedly started learning German and Latin and Old English. (I had a similar experience with a mad German woman who refused to speak English and assumed that I'd heard of nominative and ablative...)

Grammar is great because it's so cool to be able to think and talk about language in such detail - all the little things it does that I'd vaguely wondered about I was suddenly able to conceptualise.

And you're right - you can't be effectively creative with language and grammar till you know what you're doing. Our old friend Les Murray does some pretty strange things with it in Translations from the Natural world, but you can bet he knew exactly what he was on about.

You could teach me grammar any day.

Anonymous said...

It's not ungrammatical prose that is the major problem today.

Technically perfect prose that is intellectually empty or banal or pompous is far more repellent - and widespread - than prose which may be less than grammatically pristine but has something interesting to say; something worth reading and digesting.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Meli, yes -- I agree that it's quite hard to 'get' grammar without having a bit of a go at another language. And a go at two or more other languages teaches one a huge amount about what the issues are.

Anonymous, nobody said anything about 'the major problem', today or any other day. As I have already said, the case you're making is a false dichotomy, and it's a strawman to boot, and what's more you seem unaware that your comment simply repeats the attitude that my post is critiquing. I can only repeat that it's a pragmatic issue: if people want their writing to be published, then they need to learn how to write.

And if you honestly believe that technically perfect prose is more widespread than technically imperfect prose, then I can only ask what you're on, and whether I can have some.

Deborah said...

A mad nun at my convent school taught me Latin. I laboured away at it for three painful years, and eventually learned to translate Caesar's Gallic Wars, to no good purpose that I could see.

Twenty five years later, I am eternally grateful to her, for teaching me the rudiments of grammar.

Anonymous said...

While I was duly horrified at the grammar problems of some of the undergraduates I taught last year, the thing that terrified me more was their lack of interest in other writers. In some cases, students asked me NOT to recommend anything else for them to read that might be similar in style, content etc - because they wanted their ideas to be fresh, untainted by anyone else...

Really. They meant it. And as for reading criticism of ANY kind - forget it. One woman dropped out after the first class when she discovered that she was expected to read criticism. She was only interested in 'her own writing'.

Frankly, I'll have all the dangling modifiers you like if I can have students without that level of killer narcissism...

Jodi

Pavlov's Cat said...

Jodi -- yes yes yes yes I know. These are the ones who write 'poetry' consisting of Sensitive remarks about their boyfriend/lover/husband in lines of unequal length containing no poetic effects or techniques of any kind, right?

I don't know where it comes from. Maybe the vague Romantic notion of the artist as solitary tortured genius. But this attitude is very widespread and is to my mind responsible for the current flood of crap novels being unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. They can't write novels because they don't know what a novel is. I don't know why they pay all that money to do Creative Writing if they don't want to learn anything.

But look on the bright side. It's a very sheep-from-the-goats stance; you know immediately that people with this extreme-Romantic attitude (which means they actually know squat about art of any kind) will never be successful writers. They're simply not intelligent enough.

Many of them (usually the same ones) think that artists are divinely inspired and great art will just come spontaneously gushing out of them like (as I have been known to say before) vomit. I once used the first ten lines of Tennyson's Tithonus ('The woods decay, the woods decay and fall ...'), a near-perfect example of good iambic pentameter, to teach, well, iambic pentameter -- stresses and feet and so on. I could see one usually good-natured woman puffing up like a balloon with rage as I spoke, and finally when she could stand it no longer she spluttered 'Kerryn, are you trying to tell us that Tennyson did this on purpose?'

This thread is inspiring me to revive Ask the Brontë Sisters ...

Su said...

Oh please do.

More grammar posts, please! I find myself overdoing semicolons so I must be slinging them around in a far too cavalier fashion.

I had no idea modifiers could squint, I'll have to run a beady eye over my sentences from now on.

lucy tartan said...

Go, Pav! I'm too much of a coward to post like this on my blog so thanks for the vicarious relief. Nodding vigorously in particular at the 'Tennyson did this on purpose?!?' story and at your request for some of whatever Anonymous is on.

Here's a problem I must deal with today: what penalty (or response) do you think is adequate and appropriate for a first-year essay on Mansfield Park which consistently describes the author as Jane Eyre?

Anonymous said...

The same penalty, please, for the students who told me that Angela Carter couldn't write...and when I suggested that they might not like what she wrote, but she could undoubtedly write, told me that they had reached this conclusion because 'the characters were all so unlikeable'...

I have some draconian things in mind, but I think I'm in a very bad mood today, and not to be entirely trusted on the handing out of punishments to the young...

I love the Tennyson story, too...

Jodi

Zoe said...

Pav, I am of the Stolen Grammar Generation, but I just write on a blog instead of troubling poor creative writing teachers. Perhaps you could recommend it to them ; )

Also, I blame my mother because she was a Latin teacher and should of beaten it into me.

TimT said...

It's still a good anecdote.

I know the temptation nowadays is to class examples like that as a right-brain left-brain thing. So, presumably, graphic designers and workers in the sciences are attracted to more formulaic or structured writing because it suits their minds, as opposed to their romantic/creative alter-egos who prefer free expression.

I'm not sure how much that is true, but I think that I first really got a handle on poetry when I focused specifically at the metrical and formal aspects of poems I was reading or studying, sometimes to the extent of ignoring the meaning. I think once I got the structure, the meaning seemed to fall in place.

My youngest brother has Aspergers syndrome, and I know for a fact that we share similar reading and watching habits - a fondness for science fiction and tales of the supernatural, and a habit of reading in doses and snatches, and going back to favourite stories again and again. Make of it what you will!

(Was originally going to post this in the other thread, but it seemed more suitable here.)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you spend too much of your days reading pap.

Badly written books of no interest to me get published, well written books with deliberately bad English with no interest get published and even win prizes (J. Diaz), beautifully written pieces of damaging, bereft, fascistic prose are published daily and read or purchased by many.

What is your point? That correct grammar is pre-eminent? I disagree. Fundamentally.

Deborah said...

and should of beaten it into me

Indeed... she should've :-)

(I wouldn't normally engage in such pedantry on a blog, but, but, but it was just so tempting.)

Zoe said...

Non-Jodi Anonymous is your point that good grammar is not better than bad grammar? That is the logical construction of your comment, and the sentiment is crap of such magnitude as to make discussion pointless.

And Deborah, I'll have you know I wrote that on porpoise.

Pavlov's Cat said...

"What is your point? That correct grammar is pre-eminent? I disagree. Fundamentally."

No, that is not my point, as everyone here but you seems to understand. Either read the post properly or go away, please. (Although I must say you are providing a beautiful illustration of exactly the kind of illogical false dichotomy, and exactly the kind of hostile, bolshie advocacy of wilful ignorance, that the post is about.)

Deborah, I think 'should of' was probably a joke. Just a hunch.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Heh. I love it when comments cross.

Zoe said...

Me too!

emnaf

Deborah said...

D'oh! I should of picked that one up.

Its a problem, on-line humour.....

lucy tartan said...

It's just weird that people will put down a comment like that one about the 'too much of your days' (sic) of pap one without identifying themselves.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Yes, I too found the combination of (a) failure to self-identify and (b) open rudeness to a total stranger on her own blog quite arresting.

I guess I could always make the point that I've spent my whole adult life reading, studying, teaching, writing, critiquing and analysing literature for a living, and have come at this late stage to have a fairly complex and detailed understanding of what anonymous bad-grammar-lovers mean when they say "pap". But I could be using the time that that would take to, oh, I don't know, clean the toilet?

sexy11 said...

情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣,情趣用品,情趣用品,情趣,情趣,A片,A片,情色,A片,A片,情色,A片,A片,情趣用品,A片,情趣用品,A片,情趣用品,a片,情趣用品

A片,A片,AV女優,色情,成人,做愛,情色,AIO,視訊聊天室,SEX,聊天室,自拍,AV,情色,成人,情色,aio,sex,成人,情色

免費A片,美女視訊,情色交友,免費AV,色情網站,辣妹視訊,美女交友,色情影片,成人影片,成人網站,H漫,18成人,成人圖片,成人漫畫,情色網,日本A片,免費A片下載,性愛

情色文學,色情A片,A片下載,色情遊戲,色情影片,色情聊天室,情色電影,免費視訊,免費視訊聊天,免費視訊聊天室,一葉情貼圖片區,情色視訊,免費成人影片,視訊交友,視訊聊天,言情小說,愛情小說,AV片,A漫,AVDVD,情色論壇,視訊美女,AV成人網,成人交友,成人電影,成人貼圖,成人小說,成人文章,成人圖片區,成人遊戲,愛情公寓,情色貼圖,色情小說,情色小說,成人論壇


av女優,av,av片,aio交友愛情館,ut聊天室,聊天室,豆豆聊天室,色情聊天室,尋夢園聊天室,080聊天室,視訊聊天室,080苗栗人聊天室,上班族聊天室,成人聊天室,中部人聊天室,一夜情聊天室,情色聊天室,情色視訊

A片,A片,A片下載,做愛,成人電影,.18成人,日本A片,情色小說,情色電影,成人影城,自拍,情色論壇,成人論壇,情色貼圖,情色,免費A片,成人,成人網站,成人圖片,AV女優,成人光碟,色情,色情影片,免費A片下載,SEX,AV,色情網站,本土自拍,性愛,成人影片,情色文學,成人文章,成人圖片區,成人貼圖