Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Confessions of a Former English Major

I have always had a fascination with language.  Always.

From checking out foreign language books from the elementary school library to, as my husband likes to say, majoring in a language I already speak, language usage is something that I find interesting.  I'm that person --the one who silently corrects you in their head when you use the wrong tense or wrong word.  I also re-write my Facebook statuses, tweets and emails multiple times until I'm sure they say exactly what I'm trying to say.  In fact, you don't want to know how many times I've re-written this paragraph. I'm a geek. I know.

An advertising executive gave a speech my senior year of high school in which he suggested majoring in English if a career in advertising interested you.  A job where I get to play with words all day? Yes please!  I enrolled in college, set my major and plodded along, just waiting to graduate and start my new exciting career.  A few quarters in I began looking at starting salaries in advertising.  Realizing the pay was minimal and my college debt was not, I abandoned course and picked up a paying internship in recruiting.  Despite changing gears, I stayed with my major, set my focus on business writing and began studying the ins and outs of language.  Grammar classes, linguistic classes, history of language classes -- by the time I graduated, I felt I was one hell of a writer.  I knew all the rules and could write like the dickens when it came to a well thought out, dry and information packed business letter, email or directive.  Ok, time for the confession -- I'm not sure I can do that anymore.

I left the recruiting world, had a family and began writing fiction.  I couldn't be happier.  I sit on my couch and write whatever comes to mind.  Edit.  Rewrite.  Edit again. Submit.  I still get to play with words, but I don't have to follow rules.  I write what I want.  My characters generally aren't English majors.  They swear.  They stutter.  They use inappropriate grammar.  It's awesome.  And when I'm not writing dialogue?  I write however I need to in order to express a feeling.  It may be a fragment. It might be a run-on. The beauty of it is that it just doesn't matter as long as its well done and flows. 

When I began writing fiction, it was so hard for me to break the rules.  Each and every character sounded the same and had my passion for correct grammar.  It was horrible.  I actually had to concentrate on not being so stuffy.  I can't even tell you how long it took me to feel comfortable using contractions.  But once I broke free, there was no turning back. The freedom went straight to my head.

I didn't realize this was a problem until a few weeks ago.  I started looking at the Praxis prep books, just to see how much brushing up I needed to do before I test.  The math was of course a nightmare.  I can't tell you the last time I even thought about sine and cosine and I haven't taken the square root of a damn thing since high school.  I expected the math portion to be rough and was actually pleased that it wasn't quite as bad as I expected.  And then came the language portion.

Let me start of by saying it wasn't horrible.  As a writer, I know what sounds right and what doesn't. I can still pick out the correctly written passage or tell which part of the sentence is written incorrectly.  What I wasn't prepared for was how unsure of myself I'd be. Thinking it would be a breeze, I cockily sailed through the first few questions, never once thinking I'd be stumped.  Guess what -- I was stumped a few times.  Once I saw the reason behind the correct answers, it jogged my memory, but that didn't make me feel better.  It gave me yet another thing to worry about -- how will I do come test time?

The good news is that the second part of the language section went fine.  I'm sure part of problem was the fact that the last multiple choice test I took was over a decade ago.  And maybe all it took was a few reminders of some of the more persnickety rules of the language to kick my brain into gear.  Regardless of the reason, I'm thinking a few grammar books from the library may not be a bad idea -- once I return the geometry and algebra books of course.

In the meantime, I will continue writing my characters as they want to be written -- even if they refuse to use the correct verb tense or abide by subject/verb agreement.