Goodbye Strunk, Hello Dreyer

My friends, even the writer ones, must think I’m insane. Because I think I’ve told everyone I know–I mean EVERYONE–about the utterly delightful, witty, and completely sagacious style book by chief copy editor at Random House, Benjamin Dreyer called Dreyer’s English. Why, you may ask? Because I’ve read a lot of style, grammar, craft, and instructional books on English in my writing and academic careers. And among those books, there’s a few I would recommend whole-heartedly. But Dreyer’s English is the only book on style I’ve read that was truly fun. Making it the only book of its kind I actually want to go out and buy for my writer friends. I don’t mean just for their birthday or Christmas. I mean I want to run out NOW to Barnes and Noble and buy a stack of them, ensuring that each writer I give them to will pay attention to the rules he outlines so hilariously. Truly the written word could only get better for it.

Publishers Weekly says: “Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, presents a splendid book that is part manual, part memoir, and chockfull of suggestions for tightening and clarifying prose. These begin with his first challenge to writers: “Go a week without writing ‘very,’ ‘rather,’ ‘really,’ ‘quite,’ and ‘in fact.’ ” (“Feel free to go the rest of your life without another ‘actually,’ ” he says.) Dreyer goes on to write with authority and humor about commonly confused or misspelled words, punctuation rules, and “trimmables,” or redundant phrases (the most memorable he ever encountered was, “He implied without quite saying”; Dreyer was so “delighted” he “scarcely had the heart” to eliminate it from the manuscript). But Dreyer’s most effective material comprises his recollections of working with authors, including Richard Russo, who after noticing a maxim posted in Dreyer’s office from the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs—“Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style”—later called him to ask, “Would you say I am an author? Do I have a style?” This work is that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”

Go buy it now. Or you run the risk of my blathering about it again.

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So you want to be a writer, huh?

You first felt it when your were in grade school. You had an assignment to write a poem for Valentine’s Day, like for a greeting card. You got a little tingle down your spine because you knew you could do it. You started right away, scribbling in your notebook, those cutesy-sweet words that moony-eyed fifth-graders would love. But those words linked together, as made-for-each-other like a daisy chain, and that tingle reappeared, because you knew you’d done it so well. So well, your desk mates noticed. “I wish I could write a poem like that.”  You got that tingle again, but this time in your brain. “You could,” you said. “For a quarter.” A quarter later, you made your first sale. Four more, in fact.

You knew you couldn’t stop there. You had to write short stories. Adventure and love and mystery filled your notebook.  Soon, you got a special one you filled in the summer, more poems, more stories, and one notebook later, you started a novel (about a girl and her horse, of course). You got a library card and you read. And read and read and read. The more your read, the more you learned how the words played off of each other. They more you learned how a scene can bleed into the next, the more you built secret lives around each character. And you wrote. More and more. A diary. Essays. More poems. For the school newspaper. You graduated, and entered the real world. This time writing for a small-town newspaper, in the days when small-town newspapers existed. From there you graduated again, from college and into a “real” job. You wrote copy. Press Releases. Advertisements. More short stories, and started a novel for real this time.

It was awful. But still you wrote, finishing it.  But as awful as it was, after dozens of tries, it got you an agent.  (Who apparently didn’t believe you could do awful. Who probably believed in unicorns, too.) But the real world was more realistic. You parted, still friends.

You wrote. Another novel, and another. Three, four. More agents, more parting as friends. All those finished books, all going nowhere. But still you wrote, asking yourself why over and over. You wrote more. Wrote a thesis. Graduated again. You hear other people say they don’t know why they write. They just do. But you know why.  You found this out after years and years of practicing going nowhere. You also found out your reasons for doing it sound too hokey for words. That you write because to not write is worse.

That for some weird, bizarre, sadomasochistic reason it makes your fractured self seem whole. That it gives you a raison d’etre not only in the morning but in the middle of the night. That once in a while you write the perfect turn-of-phrase and when you do, it’s akin to an orgasm. That your moving and arranging of words around a page can sometimes move you to tears or laughter or unfiltered fits of rage. That sometimes those words shoot out of you like rivets to steel, and when they do oh my fucking Lord you need to get out of their way — because you need to get those words out before they stop like a crash into a brick wall. Because inevitably they will stop and when they do, the only thing you can do if you want to call yourself a writer is to keep your ass in that chair until your Muse and your own determination break through. Because there is no magic cure for creative constipation. There’s just you and the words and no magic formula, just a million monkeys at a million keyboards who sometimes, sooner or later, when the planets all line up and you finally get it right, and there’s the world waiting for you to step right up.

So you want to be a writer, huh? Then you can be. But only if you’re not afraid to say it out loud. Can you?

 

Nothing witty but a cute kitty

All right, I have a cold, and my head is so stuffed it’s clogged my brain. I’m living on tea and Smith Brothers Cough Drops, so expect no words of writing wisdom from me this week. So lieu of that, here’s my cat Gracie, who never met a pair of unoccupied pants she didn’t want to sublet. Did I mention she’s exceedingly cute? I believe it goes without saying. She’s my cat, after all.