Sunday, January 29, 2017

Are Correct Grammar, Spelling, and Punctuation Important for Creative Writing?

I have to confess that I have a visceral reaction when I see creative writers or literary magazines use incorrect grammar, spelling, or punctuation. For instance, I recently browsed the website of a new, online magazine that is calling for submissions for what they describe as “non-fiction.” For some reason, these editors, who aspire to be at the forefront of their genre, don’t know that “nonfiction” has not had a hyphen for at least ten years. Given how easy it is to look up spellings online, is there any excuse for that sort of error?

Did Shakespeare use “correct” grammar and spelling?
How important is it for writers to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Some of us are more particular about these mistakes. Those slips and lapses bother me a great deal. They indicate to me a lack of seriousness and professionalism. For a writer not to use correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation is like a would-be lover who dresses up for a date but puts his sweater on inside out.

Maybe I’m influenced by the fact that I make my living as an editor. I traffic in rules of language and usage on a daily basis.

I have to keep reminding myself that the rules for spelling, grammar, and punctuation in English are a relatively recent phenomenon. Grammar and spelling began to be codified in the late eighteenth century. Shakespeare, for example, spelled words differently all the time, and he often made what we would call grammatical mistakes, using phrases such as “more fitter,” or “more sweet.” See the fascinating essay on this topic by Professor Karl Tamburr, “Why Shakespeare Didn’t Know Grammar.”

Not everyone has the same tolerance or intolerance for errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation, anymore than everyone wakes up on the weekend at the same hour. My biggest quarrel with incorrect usage is that it leads to confusion. That is where rules become more than just conventions. 

Some authors feel as if their work is just the creative side of writing. That’s why they became a poet or novelist or playwright and not a journalist. They sweat the details when it comes to characters, plot, dialogue, imagery, the music of language, etc. “Don’t bother me about grammar and spelling, that’s what they pay copyeditors for.” Yes, but isn’t that a bit like expecting someone to clean up after you? Do I detect a bit of elitism in that attitude?

There are other class and cultural issues here. Those with a more polished education often have a firmer command of the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I find that my students in the large public university where I’m now teaching creative writing are less likely to know these norms than students in elite private colleges, who had more expensive educations.

My mother, Mickey Rogow, was a product of the New York City public school system. She ingrained in me from an early age the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The child of immigrants, my mother learned English as new Americans often do, with an accent, since Yiddish was also spoken in her home. Attending elementary school in the slums of Harlem and the South Bronx, she had teachers from the previous groups of immigrants who made fun of her accent and her mistakes in English. To her, making errors was not simply a matter of academic rules. It was evidence that you might not sufficiently belong to U.S. society, that you were a greenhorn, fresh off the boat, someone with less of a claim to being and remaining American. That’s partly why the rules of English are not just arbitrary conventions to me. They are shibboleths that demonstrate that you are an accepted part of society.

Should we look beyond that somewhat colonial heritage to reject the rules of the dominant culture? I do believe that creative writers have the ability and the right to make their own rules. I love the creative way that Ntozake Shange has invented her own spellings and punctuation to render Black English on the page in a lively and accurate way:

she wuz sullen
& the rhinestones etchin the corners of her mouth
suggested tears
fresh kisses that had done no good

from “one,” for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf


But that’s a different story, when you set out to make your own rules. If your goal is to follow the rules of standard English grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and you fail to do that correctly, be aware that some editors, and some readers, may judge you.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Writers and Collaboration, Part 3: Writers Working Together—Breton’s Earthlight

In the first two blogs in this series, I’ve talked about collaborations where an artist, such as an illustrator or composer, interprets the work of a writer. I’ve also discussed projects where a writer repurposes text already written, for instance, turning a poem into a children’s picture book.

In this post I’m going to talk about two or more writers working together to create a new work. One area where I’ve done this quite a bit is literary translation.

The first book that I translated was a collaboration with writer/translator Bill Zavatsky. 


It’s a funny story how this collaboration began. In the late 1970s, I was a young poet just starting out, living in New York City. Bill Zavatsky was a relatively established writer—two books of Bill’s poems were in print and he was the publisher of two literary magazines, Sun, and Roy Rogers. The latter was a wild child of Sun for special projects such as the memorable 100-page issue devoted entirely to one-line poems.

I was a totally unknown writer (mostly I still am!), living in a fifth-floor walkup in the East Village with a bathtub in the kitchen. At the time, I was going out with another poet, a woman named Susan, who was taking a creative writing workshop with Bill Zavatsky at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. I was translating early poems by the French surrealist, André Breton, because I loved them, and because I wanted to hear what Breton’s unbridled stream of consciousness sounded like in American English.

Susan knew that Bill had an interest in Breton and she urged me to send a few of my translations to Bill for publication in his magazine, Sun. I did. Months went by. I heard nothing.

Then in the summer of 1977, Susan and I crashed a publication party at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street, ironically in the heart of the diamond district where Hassidic jewelers sold stones for engagement rings. I think the book being launched that day was John Ashbery’s poetry collection Houseboat Days. I knew almost no one at the party (certainly not John Ashbery!) There were a few familiar faces, as anonymous as mine, but Susan spotted Bill Zavatsky in the crowd. I was too shy to talk to him—after all, Bill actually was chatting with John Ashbery. Susan literally pushed me to approach Bill about my Breton translations.

I did talk with Bill, and to my amazement, the reason he hadn’t gotten back to me about my translations was not because he hated them, but because he had been extremely busy. Bill suggested that since he was also translating poems from the same period in Breton’s work, we should collaborate on translating a book of Breton’s poetry.

A lesson here for less established poets—you may have more to bring to a collaboration than you think. Although Bill was a widely published poet, editor, and translator, he had not studied French for as many years as I had or spent as much time in France. I did have something to bring to the mix. We also had a similar vision of creating a version of Breton informed by the language of the Beat Generation and the New York School writers who had been influenced by the surrealists. (Read Breton’s poem “Free Union” and then Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and you’ll see what I mean.)

Bill and I set about to translate roughly two hundred pages of Breton’s collection Earthlight (Clair de terre), including many of the surrealist’s best poems. For me, the collaboration was an apprenticeship. Bill was the older and more experienced poet and he brought a wealth of knowledge about the practice of translation that I learned a great deal from. He was also more widely read. 

Bill Zavatsky
But for Bill, I think it was useful to have someone on the team who had a firm grounding in French grammar, vocabulary, and culture, and could say, “Breton is probably referring to the town of Pont-à-Mousson because most of the manhole covers in Paris are made in that town and are stamped with that name.”

Collaborations between writers are not symmetrical. If every writer brought the same set of skills, we wouldn’t need to collaborate. Different writers bring different knowledge to the mix. On the other hand, there has to be some common ground for the writers to compromise and enjoy one another’s work.

Bill and I worked on the translation of Breton’s Earthlight off and on for seventeen years. Through many vicissitudes, we always kept our vision for the book in sight. When Earthlight finally appeared in print for the first time in 1994, it won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award, which at that time was the annual prize for the best translation into English.

I’m excited to announce that our translation of Earthlight by André Breton has just been re-released by Black Widow Press. The new edition not only includes the French text en face for the first time, it has an updated introduction and notes that Bill contributed, incorporating the latest scholarship from France on Breton and his sources.

I’m delighted to see the book finally published as Bill and I had first imagined it forty years ago. This edition is bilingual with extensive notes to provide background on Breton’s encyclopedic interest in the occult, politics, botany, zoology, art, and history, and the way they infused his wild and passionate poetry.


My collaboration with Bill Zavatsky not only led to the publication of Earthlight, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
Writers and Collaboration, Part 1, Part 2
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Homage to Marilyn Sachs, 1927–2016

Acclaimed children’s writer Marilyn Sachs passed away on December 28, 2016. Author of more than forty books, Marilyn played an important role in children’s literature as it moved from the idealized and sentimental stories of the 1950s to more realistic situations and multidimensional characters that developed in the 1960s and beyond. Her books inspired deep loyalties in children who strongly identified with her heroines. Marilyn was also my literary mentor during the time she was my mother-in-law from 1986 to 1998.

Marilyn Sachs
When I think about Marilyn I always recall the apartment where she lived for more than four decades on 31st Avenue in the San Francisco’s Richmond District. That flat was a temple to art, filled with the wonderful woodcarvings of female figures by her husband of seventy years (yes, seventy years!), the sculptor and political activist, Morris Sachs. All of Morris’s statues have Marilyn’s wide hips.

The Sachs apartment also held many works by artists whom Marilyn and Morris had befriended once they moved to the Bay Area in 1960: a print of farm workers in a field by Emmy Lou Packard; and furiously charcoaled figures by Ethel Weiner Guttman. There were Navajo blankets on the walls of the dining room, and Persian carpets on the parquet floors, as well as a table in the breakfast room that Morris himself crafted from a redwood tree burl.

In that apartment, Marilyn entertained a river of guests. A master of the art of conversation, Marilyn could draw out the shyest person. She was not afraid to toss in her two cents with even the most gregarious visitors. Marilyn once taught me that you could tell how interested a person was in what you were saying by their occasional unconscious replies. “Uh huh, uh huh,” means polite interest, but the person is mostly bored, and you should change the topic. “Yeah, yeah,” on the other hand, means “Tell me more!”

There were always travelers passing through San Francisco having tea or dinner at the Sachs’s apartment. Marilyn was the most entertaining of hosts, keeping everyone laughing with her sharp witticisms delivered with her unpretentious, New York accent.

Marilyn’s work as a writer was evident in her study, which had an entire wall decorated with photos and letters sent by devoted fans who had written personal appreciations of her books. Her novels particularly appealed to what is oddly called in the trade, “the middle-aged child”kids from 10 to 14—pre-teens. Marilyn understood that age group extremely well, partly because she could recall so many great anecdotes from her own life during those years, anecdotes that often found their way into her novels.

At the time Marilyn started writing, children’s books in the 1950s were often artificially sweet and innocent, particularly those with female main characters. These novels often portrayed unrealistic, idealized situations. I’m thinking, for example, of Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, published in 1951, with five sisters whose worst problem seemed to be finding a misplaced a library book.

Marilyn spent many years as a children’s librarian in the Brooklyn and San Francisco Public Library systems. In New York, she worked on a bookmobile that brought reading to far-flung neighborhoods, many not near a local library. She became convinced that real children needed more naturalistic fiction that reflected their real-life problems.

Marilyn wrote her first book, Amy Moves In, around 1954, but the novel was so unlike most of the children’s literature of the time that it took her ten years to get the manuscript published. In that book, the mother of the two sisters is hit by a car, and the girls have to become self-sufficient in a way that many children must do when there is an absent or ill parent. Amy Moves In is still in print five decades later.

Marilyn also depicted Jewish American characters in a way that no other children’s writer had done before. In All-of-a-Kind Family, for instance, the main characters seem to be incessantly lighting candles for Hanukah or Shabbat. Marilyn showed the lives of American Jews as she knew it from growing up on the tough streets of the South Bronx in New York City.

Marilyn almost never wrote a bad book, to my mind. She was an incredibly consistent writer. She’s best known for The Bears’ House and Veronica Ganz, two stories of compelling misfits, Marilyn’s preferred heroes.

Among my personal favorites of her books is Call Me Ruth, a historical novel about a girl whose single-parent father is a labor leader in the garment industry in the early 1900s in New York. 


Although Call Me Ruth is a deeply sympathetic and well-researched portrayal of the trade union movement, the character of the mother is complex and believable. She’s a true crusader for social justice, but a neglectful mom. This is just one of her books that shows the influence of the great novelists, such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Willa Cather, whose work she read over and over with enormous enjoyment and profound understanding of how those authors structured their fictions.

Another favorite of mine is one of Marilyn’s last books, The Four Ugly Cats in Apartment 3D. This novella is about a girl who finds several cats abandoned by a neighbor and has to get them all adopted quickly to prevent them from being put down. It’s interesting that the apartment number is 3D. Marilyn is a three-dimensional children’s writer if ever there was one. She expertly combines humor and pathos—for me, the signature of the best writers.

In addition to being an award-winning and enormously prolific writer, turning out more than a book a year during her prime, Marilyn was also a mentor to many authors and illustrators. Judy Blume credited Marilyn with being both an inspiration and a help to her when she was first attempting to get her own groundbreaking and realistic fiction published. Marilyn was also an influential member of a circle of talented children’s book authors and illustrators in the San Francisco Bay Area that included Beverly Gherman, Susan Meyers, Maxine Rose Schnur, Susan Terris (also a poet and editor), and Ashley Wolff.

Marilyn was also a mentor to me. I attempted, unsuccessfully, to write my own young adult novel, in emulation of her accomplishments. When I showed Marilyn the manuscript, she had one cryptic and wise comment I’ll never forget: “Don’t try to tie up all the loose ends.”

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer