I had an interesting conversation with a friend while camping in Maine over the weekend. Lisa is an art conservator (www.mehlinconservation.com) and she has to write reports for her work. We got into a discussion on correct grammar. I’d never talked to her about my belief that writers must make all sorts of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, typos and punctuation gaffs. Not that writers do make those mistakes, but that for the sake of their creativity they MUST. She was surprised. Most people think writing coaches are sticklers for the technicalities.
Later, we went into town and visited a flea market. Lisa was looking at some of the old paintings. One in particular looked well-painted. I pointed it out. “It could be paint by number,” Lisa said, “it’s almost too neat.” I looked more closely, at the red barn and snowy fields and realized she was right. All the paint was in the right place, so much so that it lacked dynamism and passion. I realized at that moment that this is what happens when writers obsessively focus on grammar, spelling and punctuation at the expense of the story — what results is a paint-by-number piece of writing. Repetitive, safe, boring.
When writing creatively, make all the mistakes you need to, you want to, especially on the rough draft. It’s imperative. Only then can the real you get out from under those monsters of your past, those ferocious English lit teachers, like Sister Thomas Aquinas with her cat eye glasses and potato face who beat you with a ruler in second grade for spelling said, sed, just because you got excited writing your monster story and you were busy being the child genius who nobody understood.
In college, obsession with the rules of writing became an art form. I went to the best journalism school in the country. A former magazine editor turned teacher stood with a metaphorical whip over daily tests on commas, periods, semicolons, dashes. Over grammatical issues, spelling. It was brutal. I have grammar, punctuation and spelling traumatized into my cellular being.
To become a successful fiction writer and visual artist, I took years to unlearn all of this. All the rules sat like harpies on my shoulder, niggling and nagging and ruining my heart. My soul needed to sing. It didn’t care where the comma goes! It wanted poetry, heart, love.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think a book should be published with errors, but those technical details can be worried through on revision. Don’t turn your writing into a pretty paint-by-number picture. Slop the paint around. Commit to making mistakes.