How does one write? People ask me. Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe it’s as simple as putting words together, one after the other, but I think that devalues the work of many exceptional agony writers like J.D. Salinger or Ernest Hemingway, who said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” or Jack Kerouac, who said, “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” Maybe Thomas Mann said it best: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Here I am again, quoting writers to say my piece, but why reinvent the wheel, why try and say it differently, especially if their words offer an answer I cannot match? When I wrote my book Write Here Write Now, it was a conscious decision to have writers of every persuasion, from any age and era, from children’s story writers to playwrights, from poets to scholars, inhabit every page, because writing, in my experience, is only a by-product of reading. If I must expect you to challenge what I just wrote, might I take refuge in what prolific writer Stephen King has said about the subject: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: Read a lot and write a lot.”
It wasn’t while I was in the middle of writing Write Here Write Now that I accepted an offer to teach a writing class, but only because I thought it was already the universe nudging me to be worthy of what I was trying to do with the book, which was to share my love for words and writing. My fear of public speaking aside, as well as my tendency to look painfully shy and awkward in the middle of a crowd, I took on my very first teaching adventure in the summer of 2012, about eight months before Write Here Write Now was published. It was a terrifying experience. It didn’t help that I was going to teach a whole batch of accounting majors at San Beda College, who had minimum need for metaphors and romance in language or clever, creative expressions. I had no choice but to return to the basics, back to the basic sentence structure, the elementary subject-verb agreement and subject-predicate composition that, so ingrained in my system, I had to restudy carefully in order to explain.
The truth was I was a bad student. I had no patience for diagramming. Grammar bored me, though I liked reading about grammar, such as William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, especially the version with the Maira Kalman illustrations. Above all, I loved reading and it was through reading, voracious and omnivorous, that I learned 75 percent of the tricks of the trade.
Thus, when I stood before a class of 50 or so, the first thing I said was, “I’m here to give you an education, which means I am here not to share with you what I know, to relay to you information that I possess, education coming from the Latin word educo, which means to ‘pull out from’ or to ‘draw out from.’” Not that it simplified my job. It was just that I didn’t think there was any way I could teach them grammar over one summer, so I hoped against hope that I could draw from them what they already knew from everything they learned from their kindergarten English, their gradeschool and high school grammar, and college communication classes—in the case of the Accounting department of San Beda College, chiefly Business English.
Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences. —Sylvia Plath
It took me a while to tweak my lessons so it would speak my students’ language, presenting the sentence structure as some kind of a formula that required basic logic, procedure, and calculation, skills with which they were proficient being Accounting majors, but I also made them read a lot, including newspapers such as The Financial Times. It worked! In a matter of weeks, I saw dramatic improvement in expression. Summer was over too soon, but I left the classroom for the last time knowing that some of my students had been left with the only tool they needed and that was a better appreciation of the role words would play in the accomplishment of their tasks even as accountants.
In the students’ evaluation of the course I was given the privilege to design from scratch, “Effective Writing in Accounting,” one of my students wrote to say that my “grammar lessons” increased her confidence in her future. If I may quote, she said that the summer course “made me realize how important communication is, both written and oral… It did not only open my mind but also my heart to future possibilities.”
With writers, with people who think of writing not only as a means to an end, but as an end itself, it is a different story.
I’ve been an editor for over 20 years and much emphasis is given on grammar in my field, but I’d say that grammar is not as important as the way words come together to give a wonderful effect, whether or not a grammar rule is broken here and there. There is beauty to writing that is beyond grammar, beyond correct tenses, beyond subject-verb agreement, or correct spelling, which are hallmarks in business writing or journalism.
And whatever it is you cannot teach it. Maybe it’s honesty. Maybe it’s curiosity. Maybe it’s a mastery of the idioms. Maybe it’s the rhythm, a matter of ear. Maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe it’s none of the above. But one thing is for sure: To me, each piece of writing, whether I were to write or read it, is an education. If I may quote Kurt Vonnegut, “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”