I attended a talk at a conference in Washington D.C. recently, and not long after it began, a notable fissure split the atmosphere in the room. Some attendees were nodding approvingly, while others began tying themselves in knots in an outbreak of defensive body language: crossed legs, arms and eyebrows. What controversial subject caused such a response? The difficulty of writing sex scenes? The endless debate over “truthiness” in memoir? No, the suggestion by the presenter that writers should understand grammar in the way that an artist understands paint. When grammatical rules are broken by writers, (and these are broken frequently and with unbridled gusto by some of our most successful authors and poets), such breaks do not happen by accident, but because the writer has carefully and deliberately deconstructed our language at some intrinsic level to achieve their creative vision, and such “breaks” tend to be consistent throughout the text letting the reader know that what they are experiencing is “style” or “voice” and not simply poor craftsmanship and sloppy editing.
Not everyone in the room seemed happy with the notion that it is incumbent on the writer to know the basic rules and building blocks of sentences, in the way that a successful chef knows the flavor and use of every ingredient in nature, or a great visual artist knows how to mix any shade and intensity of color in any medium. For some, paying attention at the sentence level sounds like, well, like work, and rules run contrary to that dreamy notion of a happy artistic temperament going with the flow. And yes, I agree, the creative process is instinctive to some extent, and it must be during the first drafts, however when a writer sits down to edit his or her work, we need to be able to coolly assess, fix, and polish what we have created. Eighty percent of writing is re-writing, and it comes in darn handy to understand what the heck happened to those missing verbs, or how that modifier took up dangling. Picasso didn’t begin his career painting abstracts, but learned draughtsmanship and mastered the schools of realism and naturalism. We need to know how to construct, before we are qualified to deconstruct.