Of the billions of hours of video on YouTube, these six minutes of pontification on language by Stephen Fry are some of my favorite. This video is something of a capstone in a very important personal journey. A journey that began with a frustrated hatred of writing and ended with something altogether different. Before I go on, you really should watch the video. I’ll wait.
My less than sparkling history with writing begins in third grade where I learned I was an awful writer. Now you might say, comparatively, most third graders are awful writers, but even among my peers I was a special kind of awful. So special I was carted off to a special education class where I drew letters in a special pile of colored sand for what special purpose, other than keeping my normal teacher from reading another of my especially appalling sentences, I do not know. What I did know was that I was a bad writer. And that notion stuck with me through college.
As a college freshman, I felt so hopeless at composition that I dictated my papers to my mother to avoid the act of writing entirely. I dreaded being called to the front of the class to answer a question on the board and to survive in-class essays where spelling mattered, I developed a barely legible style of hand writing where all the vowels looked the same. My head was full of stories, speeches, and ideas but when I tried to put them down on paper, they came out as jumbles. The labors of spelling and grammar dulled my thoughts and tied my tongue.
I wrote a lot of bad papers in college but somehow my abilities as a writer slowly grew. I might have given up if it wasn’t for the increasing accuracy and acceptability of spell checking software. It was the crutch I needed in learning to walk. At no point did writing “click” for me. If anything, it was a series of clicks, like a roller coaster lumbering toward a summit. With each click I got closer to the realization that would revolutionize the way I thought about writing.
What I realized was great writers were not all that concerned with the rigid rules of grammar I’d been beleaguered by since elementary school. Of course, most great writers have an excellent command of language, but often they ignored tightly wound rules in favor of making their work beautiful. Beautiful. That word stopped me. Could writing really be beautiful? Could writing possess the same aesthetic pleasure I found in photographs?
The answer to both these questions is yes. Absolutely, emphatically, exorbitantly, yes. If you disagree, I encourage you to do what I did and read — read for pleasure. I read a lot of books in school; most of them were not beautiful. They were technical text books or lengthy treatises on political philosophy and even when we delved into things like poetry, my professors had me so worried about subtext I forgot to appreciate the books for the works of art they were. It wasn’t until I stopped reading for a letter grade and started reading for myself that things changed.
The roller coaster had stopped clicking and reached the top of the track. I came to love the way authors like Frost, Hemingway, and Conrad arranged words on a page. I was engrossed by the brutal reality of Sebastian Junger’s war stories and delighted by the devastating wit of Christopher Hitchens. The more I read good stories, the more I wanted to write them.
When I began to really love reading and writing, something strange happened. Instead of abandoning all grammar and liberating myself with an unpunctuated style, I started to love the rules of writing. I loved what they could do. I loved how a carefully constructed sentence could keep all the suspense, innuendo, and sarcasm that brings speech to life. And I loved the ability they gave me to communicate more clearly with my audience. Books like my beloved and dogeared copy of The Elements of Style taught me that sentences didn’t need to be sterile or laborious to be correct. It taught me that communicating your message was more important than any rule and that sometimes, you just had to go with what looked right.
Today, I look forward to writing. I enjoy creating art with words and sometimes, I even get paid for it. I understand now that using the correct word and spelling it in a way that everyone understands isn’t an end but a means to telling more universally accessible stories. I know now that grammar isn’t a fetter but a foundation to good writing. In some ways, I trace my love of composition to thinking of writing in terms of photography. Before you start taking wildly blurry and abstract photos, you learn proper exposure. And so it is with writing. Before you compose a novel, you learn your ABC’s.