As far back as I remember I knew I’d be a writer. Besides people, the only thing I really love is writing. Two obstacles: I have as much talent or interest in English grammar as ballet lessons. And I am, in the end, a Southern Utah farm boy. Despite these handicaps, over the decades I’ve continued to scribble, now keyboard, journals, poems, stories, even a novel. Will I be “published”? Self-publishing is a narcissist’s last hope.
Mama was a teacher. She loved language. Mama read me the Mother Goose Book of Fairy Tales more than once. I have her Major American Writers. Do American Literature classes today read Irving, Cooper, Bryant, Emerson, Hawthorn, Longfellow? Mama memorized poetry and “Dramatic Readings.” Now we’re sophisticated. Mama’s poems sound melancholy and saccharin. Dramatic Readings is forgotten. The writing Mama loved is as archaic as cooking on a wood-burning stove.
Mama took “Ideals”, a magazine devoted to “old-fashioned ideals, homey philosophy, poetry, music, inspiration, and art.” I emphasize “old-fashioned ideals.” Launched on the heels of World War II “Ideals” reflects a time America was optimistic. A large part of ideals is innocence. Has America lost innocence? Have we lost optimism? Did ideals go the way of black and white television? Despite how discouraging things seem right now, thinking of folks I know I think not. “Ideals” is still in print.
In High School they told us to be engineers. I had as much interest and aptitude for engineering, science for that matter, as learning to knit. I’m a writer. I know how to write. I learned the sound of good writing from Mama. But there’s this old bugaboo, grammar! Nominative case, objective case, subjunctive case, participles, infinitives, and coordinate conjunctions make my head hurt. Diagram a sentence? I’d rather have an enema!
BYU Freshmen had to take English. Each term we met with our professor. After going over my assignments Dr. Lyman asked if I had considered majoring in English. English for god’s sake! I couldn’t have been more stunned if he hit me in the face with a water balloon! This fellow slashed up my papers with a red pencil. Did I have to point out that for me English was out of the question? I could never conquer grammar. Seeming bemused Dr. Lyman assured me grammar was not a problem. For me, fresh from a dozen years of public education, this was as believable as being told water runs uphill. Decades down the road Natalie Goldberg and James Fry finally clarified and confirmed Dr. Lyman’s claim. And it’s not mastering English grammar!
Cormac McCarthy’s craftsmanship and skill in revealing nature and letting people act and speak for themselves takes my breath away. Rereading The Orchard Keeper or No Country for Old Men is like seeing Van Gough’s “The Starry Night” for the tenth or hundredth time; it’s far beyond mere words or paint. It’s said, “Art holds up a mirror to life.” McCarthy’s writing is a flawless, transparent pane through which readers view the world and see and hear characters with nothing whatsoever in between. Cormac McCarthy would flunk Freshman English. Correcting No Country for Old Men Dr. Lyman would need a fistful of red pencils.
As I see it understanding the “mechanics” of English Grammar has as much to do with good writing as a gift for auto mechanics does to French Cuisine. Having said this, I understand the need for my Harbrace College Handbook. It’s linguists’ and editors’ heroics in discovering or imposing order on the chaos of the English language, its exhaustive and meticulous organization of mind-numbing issues, leave me in awe. I confess occasionally to falling back on its carefully ordered contents. (“To occasionally fall back” would split the infinitive. Right? I could use the gerund “falling” back. Just showing off. A little learning is a dangerous thing.)
Obstacles notwithstanding, Handbook at my elbow, and ever haunted by the specters of punctuation, verb tense, participles and sentence structure, I continued to scribble–now keyboard–ideas, poems, stories, essays, one and the skeleton of a second novel. Not surprisingly, a dozen or so queries yielded boiler-plate rejections.
There’s consolation in knowing what gets published depends not on the craftsmanship or value between a book’s covers but economics. And rightfully so. Ink on paper is only the end product of a very spendy business. What gets published is what a publisher believes will sell. Written today, Hamlet would make it to theaters, bookstores, libraries and classrooms, only if someone believed sales would at least cover expenses. Nevertheless, walk into a library or Barnes and Noble, browse a hundred-thousands square feet of shelves, bookcases, and tables piled chest-high. I’m humbled and bewildered by what gets published: Baking With Goose Grease, The Complete Book of Buttons, All About Butter Churns, Courtship of the Sub-Saharan Dung Beetle.
Natalie Goldberg and James Fry write about writing. They finally clarified Dr. Lyman’s assertion regarding English grammar. Fry , if memory serves, “Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or grammar. That’s why we have editors.” Natalie’s Rule 7 for writing, “Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, and grammar.” I knew that!
Only now I recognize the second issue frustrating my writing. I’m an Emery County farm boy! Emery County farm boys do not become writers. Emery County farm boys become farmers, ranchers, cowboys. They brand and castrate calves. They use pocket knives to spear roasted Rocky Mountain Oysters from a ’38 Packard hub cap on a branding fire. Emery County farm boys become mechanics, drive dump-trucks and bulldozers. They pound, dig, and chop. They lug sacks of wheat. They heft bales of hay. Emery County farm boys grow-up to sweat, swear, and spit! They do not read T. S. Eliot. They damn sure don’t memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” (Have you read it?)
While I write, the Emery County farm boy feels guilty. Rather than tapping away on this silly keyboard, pushing words around a monitor, I should be hammering, shoveling, pitching hay, milking cows, feeding hogs, mucking manure! Doing something useful! I should be outside mowing the lawn–Karen does it. Washing the car–Take it to the car wash. Splitting firewood–We don’t use firewood. Trimming the roses–We don’t have roses.
James Fry has a second assurance for the boy. As I recall, “Don’t tell people you’re a writer. They’re puzzled and wonder why you don’t get a job.”
I’m 81, happy, content, and unpublished. People and Life got in my way. I could have pestered publishers more aggressively. Robert Pirsig queried over a hundred before one took a gamble. The result, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, my hands-down, all-time favorite. Still, in my book you’re not a writer if you’re not “published.”
A handful of bogus scriveners, like me, who can’t cut it commercially self-publish. Sites like WordPress are cheap and easy. Hoping to guilt-induce defenseless family, friends, and other unfortunates into reading, we shamelessly dump our verbal rambling onto the internet. I’m reminded of the boy who received a book about penguins from Grandma. When Mama insisted on a thank-you note the lad wrote, “Dear Grandma. Thank you for the book. It tells me more than I want to know about penguins.” Blogging’s like that. It’s an ego thing.
So I’ll end with a shameless suggestion. If you know someone who is burned out on Youtube and Social Media or otherwise needing distraction consider pointing them my way or telling me.