When I was in college, a professor loaned me a book of Ernest Hemingway’s selected letters. Because I loved Hemingway, and because I was a little startled that a professor had loaned me a book, I took it home and read it straightaway. For several hours, the letters engrossed me with their rich historical detail, their personal gossip, their casual wisdom. But at some point I hit upon a passage that cast everything else in deep shadow. It came from a note Ernest sent to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, and it consisted of two sentences: “You write a swell letter. Glad somebody spells worse than I do.”
I believe these words altered the course of my life, or at least my life as a writer, in two very different ways: while they led to a moment of profound revelation, they also prolonged my belief in a harmful delusion. Let’s start with the happy stuff. Here’s why it was wonderful to discover that these two titans of literature couldn’t spell.
A writer, especially a beginning one, spends much of his time being daunted. He’s daunted by the odds of getting published, by the breathless articles that claim (and have been claiming for more than a century) that fiction is a dying art form, by the rolling of the eyes he gets from his finance-major friends when he talks about his novel. But mostly he’s daunted by his veneration for certain authors and their works.
Most writers became writers because one day they finished Sense and Sensibility or “Barn Burning” or Lucky Jim and said to themselves “Holy cow! I want to do that!” But doing that, one quickly learns, is incredibly hard. Compounding the problem is the fact that great writers make it seem like it’s easy. When we read The Lord of the Rings we don’t consider Tolkien’s decades of labor, when we read James Joyce we don’t think about how it took him an entire day to write three sentences. Instead, we conclude that an enormous gap exists between people like us and the mystical beings who create profound literature.
But then, if we’re lucky, we learn that they were bad at spelling.
Anyone with a mild interest in Hemingway and Fitzgerald knows about their alcoholism, their irascibility, their misogyny, et cetera, so it wasn’t news to me they had human foibles. But I’d always assumed that in terms of language usage they must have been perfect, that to create “The Killers” or The Great Gatsby you had to have a virtually superhuman facility with every aspect of writing. The fact that I didn’t have such facility, and didn’t expect to get it anytime soon, daunted me tremendously. So when I learned Ernest and F. Scott didn’t have total mastery either, it was like the scene in Rocky IV when Rocky makes Ivan Drago bleed and his corner guy yells “You see? He’s not a machine! He’s a man!”
In short, it gave me courage. The critic Harold Bloom argues that a writer’s idol is also his enemy: we are always trying to defeat our masters, much as we love them. Because I saw a chink in the armor of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, I could conceive of myself as a legitimate challenger to them. Of course, I would never defeat them, but at least I now had permission to try. This is the essential discovery every beginning writer must make: the writers you will compete against are not goddesses and gods (except for Chaucer), they are men and women who struggle with language just as much as you do. If you don’t accept that, you’ll never be able to take a swing at them.
So that was the happy result of my discovery of Hemingway’s remark. I was emboldened, empowered, ready to take on my idols because I’d finally seen them in their underwear, so to speak. Now for the bad news…
The realization that these two men couldn’t spell led me to believe in one of the more insidious fallacies about writing: I came to think that spelling and its cousins (grammar, syntax, punctuation, convention) were not important aspects of the creation of art, that they were matters for copy-editors and composition teachers. Character, plot, thematic implication—these, not pedantic rules of grammar, were the weapons I would wield in my battle with the masters. I thought about correcting linguistic errors the way a young doctor might think about taking blood pressure: if you’re any good, eventually you’ll have people do it for you.
Utter nonsense, of course. To believe that it’s somehow artistic to maintain an ignorance of prose mechanics or literary convention is simply a way to rationalize laziness. But certainly it’s an easy idea to cling to, especially for beginning writers, who tend to be more interested in Grand Themes and complex plots than in pronoun-antecedent agreement. I personally grabbed onto this fallacy with both hands, as soon as I found that letter from Hemingway. If Ernest didn’t care about such bagatelles as spelling and mechanics, then why should I?
What I didn’t understand was that Hemingway’s note to Fitzgerald exaggerated the problem (both of their spelling errors were minor), while taking a very Hemingway-esque dig at a rival. Also, forgiving oneself the occasional spelling mistake is much different from ignoring considerations of style and grammar. In truth, as I would later learn, Ernest was sort of obsessed with the way language worked, which you have to be if you rewrite a single page thirty-nine times, as he reportedly did for the ending of A Farewell to Arms. His grammatical mastery is also evident in the beginning of that book. As the critic Walter Ong has pointed out, his unexpected use of the demonstrative pronoun and the definite article in the first paragraph sharply influences the way the reader approaches the narrator and the subsequent action.
In other words, far from shrugging off the minor points of language usage, Hemingway knew that nothing else—the development of his story, the articulation of his themes, the interplay of his characters—would matter if he didn’t control the nuances of grammar. The study of language and prose mechanics is not beneath a great writer’s attention, it is the primary focus of it. I would have noticed this earlier if I’d been paying real attention to Hemingway’s work, instead of just trying to figure out how to get to a bullfight.
The romantic myth of the writer as one who eschews rigorous technical study in order to take a big fat bite out of life is thoroughly imbued in our culture. Aspiring writers are encouraged to believe that preparing oneself for a life of fiction writing should involve getting adventurous jobs, like Jack London did; or having a torrid and star-crossed love affair, like Mary Shelley did; or hitting the road with a few dollars and a tank of gas, like Kerouac did; or getting drunk all the time (hard to choose just one example here). Even people who know better sometimes seem to think we should let aspiring writers maintain the delusion. Eventually, the argument goes, the school of hard knocks will teach them what being a writer actually means, and that’s the only way they can appreciate the lesson.
I wrote this book in part because I disagree with this laissez-faire approach. It’s wrong to let people labor under a false idea, especially one that has been so doggedly perpetuated by the culture. I recall with a shudder how much of my time (and the time of many slush-pile readers) I wasted under the delusion that I could get by on raw talent and whatever usage rules had osmosed their way into me. This book argues that mastering language on a fundamental level is an essential part of becoming a literary artist, as necessary to focus on as character development or plot construction. I wish I had heard this thesis around the time I learned that Hemingway needed Spell Check.
But more importantly, the book is meant to serve as a resource, because there aren’t many other places for you to turn if you want to examine the relationship between language usage and fiction. I’ve never read a creative writing book that didn’t assert the importance of mastering prose mechanics, yet I’ve never read one that gave adequate advice about how to do it. I’ve never been in a creative writing classroom in which the instructor didn’t tell students how crucial it was to know basic grammar, yet I’ve never been in one (including those I’ve taught) in which the class spent more than a few minutes talking about how to learn it. This is understandable—writers of fiction manuals have only a few hundred pages, and instructors have only sixteen weeks, to discuss the innumerable elements of their subject. Still, a destructive message is being sent: “grammar, style, and convention are important, but not so important that we’re going to talk about them.”
This isn’t to say that aspiring writers don’t get any advice about the subject. Usually, they’re told to read a comprehensive grammar manual or Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Unfortunately, the former tend to be long and dry (the Allyn and Bacon Handbook comes in at 909 pages in the 6th edition, and it’s about as fun to read as the Canadian tax code), while the venerable latter is, I’m sorry to say, pretty dated. But the real problem with these books is that they aren’t intended to be read and used exclusively by fiction writers. When someone tells an aspiring fiction writer to read them, the implication is that people writing novels and stories don’t use language any differently than people writing vacuum cleaner manuals, or social science essays, or opinion pieces for the Washington Post. Suffice to say, I think that’s a huge mistake.
This book will deal with matters of language as they pertain exclusively to the writer of fiction. Of course, the technical rules governing linguistics don’t change depending on form and genre; a colon serves the same function in Jane Eyre as it does in Cat Fancy. But there are elements of language that a fiction writer needs to pay special attention to, just as there are some that she won’t have to think about much. Ideally, we would all be able to pontificate on the subjunctive mood or the history of the hyphen. But in practical terms, it’s more important for a creative writer to have mastery of the past perfect tense, for example, or the implications of dashes versus parentheses. Furthermore, many elements of fictional convention and style, such as the methods for portraying dialogue or the techniques for indicating thought, will not be covered in grammar resources. Language is the water that all writers swim in, and you need to know your element as thoroughly as you can. But it’s a big ocean, and mastery for a creative writer involves the knowledge of specific currents and swells. The investigation of these metaphorical currents and swells is the project of this book.
Along the way, I’ll invoke a number of examples, a few of my own invention but usually ones from other writers. Most of the passages, naturally, will be taken from works of fiction. I tried to use an equal number of long works and short; while there may be subtle differences in the way novels use language as compared to stories, I don’t think those differences are explicit enough to fall within the scope of this book. I also tried to favor contemporary writers over older ones, although there are a few 19th and 18th century texts cited (some elements of grammar haven’t changed much). The only other criterion I consciously used was that the works must have been originally written in English, although I allowed for a few exceptions to this rule.
A book like this is necessarily limited by the fact that it doesn’t offer the best method for improving your ability to write imaginative literature. The surest way to do that, as any experienced writer will tell you, is to read as much fiction as you can, and write the rest of the time. No great novel was ever written by following a how-to manual, while thousands of them have been written by people who were obsessed with reading. As Giorgos Seferis said, “A lion is made up of the lambs he’s digested, and I’ve been reading all my life.”
As profound as that point is, it can also be frustrating—and misleading—to aspiring writers, because it implies that you can’t write anything of value, or improve your work fundamentally, until you go into a cave for a few years and do nothing but read the classics. Is your own fiction destined to be clunky and unsophisticated until you’ve put the collected Faulkner and Wharton and Woolf under your belt?
The short answer is no. Reading will always empower you as a writer, but it’s ridiculous to think you can’t improve your work in other, more direct ways. Playing in the NFL for ten years might be the best way to sharpen one’s football skills, but that doesn’t mean a rookie isn’t going to work like hell in training camp. These days writing is about as competitive as playing pro football, and in both fields, aspirants need to look for every advantage they can get.
So while I certainly encourage you to read widely and intelligently, I believe other methods are also helpful in achieving the linguistic mastery every creative writer needs. Such methods include the consideration of stylistic decisions from different angles, the investigation of what is implied by literary conventions, and the analysis of how great writers have explored the vast potential of English. We’ll do all these things and more throughout this book.