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HTML Giant, Ted Hughes, permission to write, privilege, education, commas.

I read online publications and submit my own stories. The standard is high (so high that comparing the weaker books for sale at work in the bookshop leaves me baffled at how they are published in print and some of these online authors are not) and sometimes that is an exhilarating thing that inspires and pushes me, and other times it kinda makes me a wee bit anxious – am I good enough, how can I get better?

There are a wealth of do’s and don’t’s scattered thru the lit blogs; advice which can help but also hinder. HTML Giant has a lot of very good writers who say things authoritatively, persuasively and thoughtfully. (And other times they talk a load of bollox, but that’s not relevant right now.) I enjoy reading HTML Giant although occasionally I struggle with what I perceive as its American Academia “in club” vibe.

Recently I have been fretting about my lack of a formal writing education. I don’t think my A level English Lit counts for much! I have begun doubting my ability to compete with all the MFA/MA students out in the world. I am pretty much self taught, and what I know I have gleaned from reading. It has got me this far, wherever this far is. Now I worry that misplacing a comma and fucking up formatting is working against me when I submit to the same ‘zines these HTML people edit and inhabit.

I took Simon to Oxford for a birthday treat last weekend. We did the tourist bus tour and looked at University sites and beautiful old buildings. Part of me felt a familiar twist of resentment – I felt the same when we visited Cambridge – a tug of longing to immerse myself in study, an unpleasant envy of those who do. Anyway, I enjoyed myself in Blackwell’s. I bought a copy of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” which I hope may help me. I also bought a half price copy of “Letters of Ted Hughes”. I’m a huge cliche in that I adore the whole Ted and Sylvia *thing* and have for years. I love both of their poetry (and prose) and hold them in the highest literary regard. Their story began in Cambridge, and knowing that Sylvia Plath was a genius student I have always imagined that Ted was too. I began reading “Letters” last night and was delighted to read Christopher Reid (the editor) write in his introduction:

“A more pervasive problem has been what to do with Hughes’s spelling mistakes, which occur liberally in both manuscripts and typescripts, and with his idiosyncratic punctuation and sometimes wayward grammar and syntax.”

Yipee! He goes on:

“Oddities of punctuation are even more abundant, and most of these I have preserved…”

“…Missing commas and full stops, the pairing of single with double inverted commas, lists lacking their expected commas and such like.”

Now I am in no way comparing my writing self with that of Hughes, but ooh, how lovely to know that such a hero had fucksy commas too! Plus, he swapped his English course for Anthropology and only achieved a 2nd. Ha!

Onwards!

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16 responses »

  1. Onwards indeed. It is SOOO easy to feel stupid and under-qualified (it's certainly something I struggle with) isn't it? Lovely and reassuring to read things like this!Nik

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  2. Great post, Sara. I HAVE an MFA and I still grapple with grammar, especially the whole Irish English versus American English etc.Bottom line, we ALL need to keep reading and writing, it's the only way.

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  3. Sounds like you are already doing what needs to be done to improve your writing, what everyone who wants to write should be doing – that is reading quality material and writing as much as is possible. Loved that info about Ted Hughes too – made me feel better about my 2nd. šŸ™‚

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  4. I think Ethel's 'grappling with grammar' is a lovely phrase. I once wrote a fan letter to a top crime writer and received a lovely letter back, but riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical howlers. I actually admired the fact that he let me see him in the raw, unedited. We all have that angst to some extent. As for Oxford/Cambridge – I buggered up my interview with Oxford years ago – didn't re-sit one poor A level and settled on a far lesser place. I feel that Brideshead Revisited ache whenever I go to Oxford, that academic envy of simply drowning in books and words.You are Sara. An editor can juggle the nitty gritty later down the chain. But I think in sharing this, you will see that we all tremble in the Lynn Truss department. Better a good writer than a boring pedant with no flair. Just be Sara.

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  5. Thanks, Sara, you made me feel grand to be me today!

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  6. I reckon that Creative Writing degrees, masters etc don't actually 'teach' you to write in the 'normal' accedemic way. From my own experience of studying Creative Writing at university, I'd say it was more like having the change to workshop your work, discuss writing aspects with other people, etc. The same things happen in critiquing forums, or through blogs and social networking… We can discuss and workshop work in a lot of different ways. The main advantage of going to uni to do this is that it is very structured, and you have an established author to guide you. Other than that, it all depends on the individual. Someone who puts a lot of effort into their writing who DIDN'T do an MA will be a better writing than the person who did an MA half-heartedly believing that a qualification makes them a better writer…So I wouldn't worry about it, Sarah!

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  7. Thanks for all the comments. I do feel rather liberated at the moment. I shall go back to not worrying so much about each comma placement and get on with the business of writing. I love the Ted Hughes Letters book. It is making me very happy.

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  8. As an MFA, a writer for HTMLGIANT, and a reader of tons of submissions, let me tell you that no formal training should matter to you as much as your A Levels.

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  9. Apologies for the rogue 'h' I put in your name in my last comment, Sara!

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  10. Lynne Truss's book 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' helped me understand some grammar. It's worth a look. It's funny too which is a bonus!

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  11. I've got an MA in CW and I still have worries like this – even more so since I started teaching and I realise how many of my 'students' are better read, motivated and organised than I'll ever be. I don't have any advice, just a bit of empathy. My spelling / punctuation is shocking too, and it still embarrasses me when I get it wrong in public. An occasional commenter, but avid reader šŸ™‚

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  12. Thanks everyone for kindnesses. Jenn, thank you for sharing that with me. It helps, it really does.

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  13. No problem! You've not known shame until you've had your creative writing workshop handouts proof-read and found wanting by one of your students… šŸ˜‰

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  14. Sara, looking at the enviable list of online zines that have taken on your work, I really don't think you have anything to worry about. I did an MA in CW and there was nothing there about spelling and grammar, and in just one year there's very little that can be done to make you leapfrog everyone else. If you're looking for inspiration, I'm currently recommending the Paris Review Interview books to anyone who'll listen. Every writer in there has a different story to tell about how they became writers, and they're all really inspiring. Vol 1 is OP but I found a pristine copy in new and used on amazon, and the others can be ordered easily.

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  15. Willow – I appreciate you taking the time to leave such a kind comment. I think that checking out the Paris Review interview books is a good idea actually as you're not the first to mention them. Cool idea, thanks.

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  16. Yes, I second Willow's suggestion: the 'PR' interviews are fascinating (albeit a tad … worthy ;-)!). There's also an interview collection by Val Hennessey – A Little Light Friction – which is definitely worth a read (she puts things into perspective via humour).The main thing, tho' is to read. I don't suppose it can be much consolation; but I was constantly being accused of stupidity while living in the UK & now in the blogosphere it's the Brits who do that, too! Funnily enough, in France – a country where intelligence really is venerated – that hasn't happened … yet!Just keep reading things that inspire you, & writing – to hell with all else!

    Reply

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