“I before e except after c.” Do you remember that mantra? I remember it, that and many others. Grammar rules were drilled into me in elementary and secondary school. I knew when to use quotation marks, commas, and all the other fancy stuff that decorated the page.
But a funny thing happens when you write, you think more about the story than you do about the mechanics, and the rules of writing vanish as the text fills the page.
As a teacher of language arts, many moons ago, I prided myself on being good at the mechanics of writing and spelling. My little red pen had a whale of a time with corrections on students’ work. Sometimes I got a little too caught up in looking for the mistakes, and missed what the students were writing about. That’s very sad really, because there could have been a Shakespeare or Hemingway or Bronte among those students, and I was too busy with my little pen to appreciate their creations. I no longer use a little red pen.
The trouble with me is I usually get frustrated at the mistakes I make when I write; the pride of a language arts teacher is a hard thing to break. I do get frustrated at mistakes, when I see them, and I then do the brow-slapping “How could I have made such a stupid mistake?” routine, over and over again.My forehead is slapped raw at this point.
If someone told me when I was twelve years old that the idea was more important than the mechanics of writing, I could have soared, but I was the product of a very old fashioned, Sisters of Mercy education. (I was going to say Sisters of No-Mercy but that’s another blog post) Being grammatically correct and spelling correctly were more important than being imaginative. It was better to be right with the boring minutiae than original with the ideas we wrote about.
Can you imagine a young Cormac McCarthy adhering strictly to the rules of writing, getting so caught up in the rules that the content of his art suffered? I mention McCarthy specifically because he uses contractions, such as the apostrophe in “can’t” rarely. He uses quotation marks never and his paragraph structures are unique, even non-existent in some of his novels. I read The Road and No Country for Old Men recently and not once did his limited use of the rules of writing make me stop and think, “oh he should have used a comma there.” I should add that McCarthy is a Pulitzer prize winning novelist.
So I ask you, what is more important when we write: getting original ideas down on paper, or using the apostrophe in “can’t?” If you feel good about yourself for finding a mistake in someone’s writing, maybe you should stop and ask yourself this first:
“What is this author saying?”
When you have answered that, then worry about the mechanics of writing and whether or not it reduces the author’s affect on you the reader. If you can’t get past the mistakes, deliberate omissions, or as I shall call them from now on, the author’s aura, then you could be missing out on a whole lot more than the apostrophe in “can’t.”