Faye Rapoport DesPres

Words, sentences, and paragraphs, oh my!

There’s no doubt about it; I have been writing less since I started teaching Expository Writing at Framingham State University. There, I’ve said it. Now that the truth is out, maybe I will do something about it. That process has already begun, in fact. Today I pulled out an essay that has had me stumped for a while and began tinkering with the first paragraph. It’s a start, but I also have to get back to freewriting, writing by hand, and drawing on the moment. I am getting that feeling that comes over me sometimes: it’s time to produce something new.

Despite my lack of focus on creative work this month, I’ve been learning a lot from teaching. My hope is that some of the things that I’ve learned will propel my work forward in their own way. I’ve already noticed that my revision skills have taken a leap forward since I’ve been forced to review and teach grammar. I have felt my way through grammar instinctively for years, only vaguely remembering the rules I learned as a child. Although it’s good to have an innate sense for commas and sentence structure, there are cases when the actual rules lead to a stronger sense of clarity. The moment that I realized this reminded me of the day when I tried on glasses for the first time (not long ago, mind you). My eye doctor had told me that my distance vision was just fuzzy enough to call for a pair of glasses, maybe for movies and night driving. When I put them on after having the prescription filled, I didn’t notice the difference at first. But when the optometrist told me to look at a tree across the street, I suddenly realized that the leaves were in perfect focus. I could see more than their general shape and color; I could make out every detail, right down to the frayed edges.

That’s the way revision feels to me now. Before, when revising a draft, I felt my way through each word and sentence and used my instincts to fix and improve them. Now I am armed with a whole new toolbox; I see the places where subtle grammar fixes improve the text.

Some people think it’s a mistake to pay too much attention to rules. It goes back to that question people often debate: is writing — at least creative writing — an art or a craft? Rebels don’t follow rules, right? Well, neither do artists! For years people told me to avoid writing teachers; the fear was that they would direct my work into a formula and rob it of its individuality. I’ve heard discussions about whether MFA programs, for example, produce a certain type of writer and threaten the development of new and unique voices.

What I realized when I earned an MFA degree, however, is that creative writing is both art and craft. Yes, I consider writing an art; I think there are choices a good writer makes, from diction to syntax, from content to form, that come from a unique, creative place. If you doubt it, read Lolita. I’m still listening to it on CD during my drives to and from campus, and if Lolita isn’t art, I don’t know what is. I’m sure most good writers have had moments when words and sentences seem to emerge from a completely creative place.

At the same time, I believe there is a craft element to good writing. There is nothing wrong with learning grammar and a few rules. Once you know the rules, you can break them — but at least at that point your choice is purposeful. It comes from a place of knowledge and intent. Grammar exists for a reason, as I find myself telling my students repeatedly. You can have wonderful ideas, but if you don’t express them in a way that the reader can access, you’re probably missing the boat. Grammar helps language flow in a way that makes sense. For the most part, it improves understanding.

Lately I’ve been thinking about one of my teachers, Randall Kenan. Randall tried to help me analyze writers’ choices — to look closely at diction and sentence structure. At the time (my second semester), I sometimes cried in frustration at his requests. I explained that for me, writing was like music. I took piano lessons for five years as a child and played the flute for eight years. I can read music (although the skill is now rusty). I paid my dues learning scales on various instruments. But despite all of that, I can learn a piece of music much faster by just listening to it, or by watching someone play it and then copying what he or she did. I wanted Randall to tell me that it was OK to write like that — to read good writing and then just feel my way through how to write well myself.

I wish I could tell Randall that I’ve changed my mind. After re-learning the grammar I’d forgotten long ago (after I stopped diagramming sentences in elementary school), I am armed with new weapons against my own mistakes. And on those occasions when I do decide to break the rules — when I use a sentence fragment, for instance — at least I know what rule I’m breaking.

Teaching Expository Writing for the first time is a challenge. It takes a tremendous amount of time and energy, especially when you have never taught at the university level before, and when you have the freedom to design the course from scratch and to create (or steal) handouts, lesson plans, and exercises. And the hardest part is convincing eighteen-year-old students — most of whom are not English majors, and many of whom are convinced they will never need to write again — that any of this stuff is important.

It is! It is! Perhaps seeing that has made the time I’ve spent teaching more valuable than I realize — even if I’ve had to take a break from my daily writing.

Of course, now I have to get back to it.


2 thoughts on “Words, sentences, and paragraphs, oh my!

  1. Janice Heck

    Right on, Faye! You have hit the nail on the head! Knowing grammar gives you power. Instead of thinking something is right, you KNOW it. And you know when and where you can break the rules.
    I love the kids’ books by Lynn Truss (Twenty-odd Ducks: Why Every Punctuation Mark Counts! and Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference, and others). Even college students can get the point using these books.
    Grammar is another tool in the writer’s toolbox.
    Keep on writing!

  2. Cindy

    Hi Faye,

    Have you read Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style? Sandra Scofield recommended the book during my second semester in the MFA program. This is a grammar book FOR CREATIVE WRITERS. Lukeman shows you how to use punctuation to create the effect you want in your writing. So he takes the basic rules and bends them, breaks them, gives them a twist, depending on how you, as a writer, want the writing to sound. He helps you decide which grammatical choices to make and why – not because they always follow the rules, but because grammar is the way we infuse music into our sentences.

    I enjoyed your blog entry. It’s always interesting to hear your thoughts on writing, and now, on teaching.

    Thanks, Faye.