I have a confession to make. When I was at school, long ago in the distant past when such things were taught, I used to enjoy grammar. I liked finding out how language worked and seemed to get it intuitively, the way some people get mathematics. When our maths mistress said witheringly, if I dared to say I didn’t understand, “Look, dear, your intooition should tell you that,” my intooition never showed up. When the English mistress told us the difference between ‘the man who has red hair’ and ‘the man, who has red hair,’ (OK, that’s punctuation, but it is connected) I seized on it with delight; I could even explain it to my bemused friends. I was good at Latin too – plenty of grammar there – and always did well at languages. At university I took a linguistics option and revelled in it. And I can spell.
So what? you may say. Language is a nerdish preoccupation, but a perfectly harmless one. Trying to learn Swedish from watching Wallander or enjoying Eats, Shoots and Leaves won’t cause you to commit murder or terrorise the neighbours. And it helps keep the Alzheimer’s at bay. It’s just that being – or trying to be – a writer, I think I shouldn’t be interested in those things. Since my self-doubting teens I’ve always believed, or at any feared, that having the sort of mind that can do grammar and spelling means by definition not being creative. I know a number of brilliant and imaginatively gifted writers who can’t spell or punctuate and wouldn’t recognise a relative clause if it jumped up and bit them. Therefore, my thinking goes, if I can do those things and think they’re worth bothering about, that shows I must be lacking in imagination. Stuck in my little linguistic groove, when what writers need is to see the bigger picture. When I was in my twenties, just starting to write, my then partner was always telling me I was a convergent thinker, who followed the steps and stuck to the rules, while he was a divergent thinker, who was free and creative. In fact he was organised and logical as well as creative, and I was capable of being imaginative – especially when no one told me I wasn’t.
The false assumption here is that one set of characteristics has to preclude the other. If you went through a list of a hundred writers, you would probably find some who are highly dyslexic, some who have the kind of linguistic bent I’ve described, and a good many more who are somewhere in between. I wouldn’t like to say whether one group is more or less imaginative than the rest. It’s the same with administrative skills, which writers tend to believe inhibit their creativity. One of the most creative people I’ve known is also an extremely efficient administrator and no less creative for it. I spent many years trying (and, I have to say, succeeding) not to be organised and efficient because I thought creative people weren’t. I didn’t discover until well into my working life that really I enjoyed creating filing systems and setting up databases. Although the admin can easily take you over and – like all those linguistic pursuits – become a distraction from the horribly difficult act of creative writing, there’s no intrinsic reason why not being able to do it should make you a better writer.
Perhaps there’s also a false assumption that writing is entirely right brain, imagination, bigger picture stuff, when in fact we know it’s nothing of the kind. It’s a hybrid, a constant dialogue between the creative vision and the language that pins it to the paper (thanks to Susan Barrett for the phrase). And language has structure and usually needs to be intelligible – which is where grammar and punctuation come in. It’s perfectly possible, if you’re someone like James Joyce, to subvert not only these but the language itself. However, subverting them is not the same as not bothering with them or being ignorant of them. Not that I’m a total stickler where grammar (I just typed ‘grammer’) is concerned. Take subjunctives: it usually sounds more far natural to say “if I was…”, even though “if I were…” is correct. But my hackles do rise, I can’t deny it, when someone says: “Walking down the road, the house looked enormous.” (For those who can’t spot the deliberate mistake, the house was not walking down the road.) And “She said it to both he and I” makes me shudder – ‘he and I’ being faux correct for ‘him and me’. I don’t think writers do themselves any favours by ignoring errors like these, which detract from the elegance and clarity of their prose.
And what about poetry? Poets are the imaginative types par excellence, aren’t they?Surely more right-brained than prose writers. Yet most of the poets I know care desperately about whether they use a dash or a semicolon, whether the syntax is absolutely watertight, whether the verb is in the correct tense. A poem is so short and concentrated that these things matter more; and, as Lynne Truss has so eloquently shown, they really do affect (not effect) the meaning.
Having started by slightly despising my language proclivities, I’ve ended up defending them. To judge from recent posts on Facebook, I’m far from the only person who minds about grammar and even thinks spelling is important. Some of those people are creative writers and some aren’t; some write good prose and some don’t. There isn’t a linear connection. What is clear is that the two sides – the many sides – of this strange endeavour we call writing all have their place. Everyone has a different mix of abilities and non-abilities: beyond the essentials, there isn’t a single package labelled ‘writer’ any more than there is one labelled ‘mother’. We bring all of ourselves to our writing and that’s what makes it individual. Which means that with all my sticklerishness and language-nerdiness I too can still be a creative writer.