Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I Aint Dyin' To Offend you, I Got A Dyslexic Heart

By Jay Stringer

Hey, Grammar sucks, right? No, okay, it doesn't.

Dave posted last week a very well thought out piece about the teaching of grammar. Sandra posted her own views yesterday. It's fair to say I agree totally with Dave, but I understand where Sandra is coming from.

Dave's post was really talking about teaching. It wasn't about the professional writer. And the other thing is that neither Dave, nor myself, are saying that Grammar isn't important. We're just questioning the running order of those priorities.

My point of view is an argument I need to make in two parts. First I need to say why I hold those opinions, then I need to tell you why that qualifying statement doesn't matter.

I'm dyslexic. It's only been in the past year that I've stopped making excuses for myself, and hiding issues away. Although i've always been willing to tell people, its only recently that i've started writing about the effects, or showing the ways that i struggle. My wife might be used to filling in my forms, reading directions, and checking the labels in shops, but i'm no longer letting people "at the desk job," think that I'm stupid simply because my brain handles information in another way.

The more active i've become in talking about it, the more i'm noticing there seems to be a war on dyslexia, too. Many educational authorities still don't recognise it. Many people who are meant to be teaching these people are doing so without a basic understanding of it. There are many famous people from the past who have been identified as dyslexic, or of carrying traits that would indicate it's presence, and there are now increasingly blogs, websites and journals that seek to disprove this. I've had someone look me in the eye and offer to show me studies that prove dyslexia doesn't exist. I wonder if these same people would stand in front of a blind man and offer to show him proof that he can see. So I must warn you, it's an issue I'll be getting louder on in future.

Clearly my thoughts on this issue can't help but be coloured by my perspective. I come at issues of the written word with something of an outsiders point of view. However, that doesn't matter. That shouldn't matter. The fact that my views have been informed by this don't impact the views themselves. I'll clarify what I mean by that later on.

It goes without saying, in my opinion, that anybody working at a craft should learn the basics of that craft. The examples given previously in this discussion allude to this. Yes, we want a carpenter or a builder to know the basics before they build us a chair or a house. Yes we want a pilot to have take lessons before flying our plane.

But what are the basic issues of their craft or job? I don't care if the pilot knows the accepted order to press buttons in, as long as he knows how to get the plane up, fly it, and land it safely. He may well be fudging a few things, like everybody at every workplace ever does. He may miss out some protocol, or switch on the flux capacitor before engaging the doohickey, and I couldn't give a toss. I don't care if the carpenter knows how to use a spirit level, or how to correctly mark his angles or cut his joints. I just care that he can build a seat.

Look at us. what percentage of readers actually care what aspects go into the craft of writing? Do they look at how we judge when to describe the room, or what we think of writers block? No, they want to read a good story. And none of us wants to see how sausages are made.

My favourite band in all the world are The Replacements. When Paul was playing with Bobby Stinson, he was playing with a guitarist who couldn't explain musical theory to you, and wouldn't know to point out a scale on the fret, but let him loose and he could spit fire with that guitar. Twenty years later Paul could have his pick of expert session musicians, but can any of them tell a story?

Because that's the thing. Thats the basic fundamental. It's story. It's point. It's message. Everything that comes afterwards is the dressing and presentation.

And there are tools out there for adult writers. I have people who can help polish my stuff. We have steps we can take to present ourselves as professionally as we can, and those are steps that we absolutely have to take. The professional, semi-professional or aspiring writer has to take their work seriously. No question.

But there are deeper issues here.

You want confessions? Okay. Many of the things that have come up during this past week, issues of verbs, adverbs, nouns.....none of these mean anything to me. I'm 30 years old, and I know how to tell you a story, but i'm not going to be able to explain to you what any of those terms mean. I'm not going to be able to hold a conversation on how many words should be in a sentence, or when you should and shouldn't use quotation marks. Even at the thought of trying, i'm wondering where the nearest fire escape is.

There are people around me who know these things. My wife is a journalist. My agent is very patient and can explain to me various elements of grammar. But I think they both agree I can tell a story.

To go back to Dave's point, it is vital that we engage the kids first. Encourage them to join the topic, to give ideas, and to put those ideas down in writing. Everything else can wait. Everything else is just the rest of us forcing rules onto them.

Just this past week, on one of the message boards I'm known to check out, I saw a teenager join in a conversation. This was someone who was clearly not used to writing in this way, clearly not used to joining in a conversation and expressing thoughts in written form. And the first reply he got was asking if he was kindergarten because some of what he wrote was in text speak.

Way to engage. Way to encourage.

And you know what? I've been that kid. Sometimes I still am.

I would rather read a novel in text speak that had something to say, than a book written in perfect modern prose that failed to express a single interesting idea. And I would rather engage that kid who sits down to join in than throw a rule book at him and drive him away.

The figures in adult illiteracy are astounding. A commission in 1998 showed that 7 million adults in England alone are functionally illiterate. Google tells me that 37 million in the U.S. suffer the same way.

Now, we can't generalise as to what is affecting all of those people. We don't know their circumstances, we don't know their poverty level or their access to education. But I have worked with adults who struggle to read and write, hell, I'm one of them, and I can say we need to engage people first.

At junior school I couldn't pass a spelling or grammar test to save my life. Teachers would work on this with me. They would give me the letters all cut out and ask me to rearrange them, they would give me books that explained what a noun was, or what an adverb was. They would talk to me, and eventually tell my parents that I was lazy, or that I didn't apply myself. I spent time outside some of these classes, eventually, looking at picture books, because if I didn't fit their lesson plan then I didn't fit the lesson. Later, at high school, the other people in my class could double my scores at S.P.A.G but they couldn't touch me on comprehension. Also worth noting that at high school I was pulled to one side and offered the chance to withdraw from certain subjects by the head teacher, because I was lazy and unfocused, and they had exam scores to worry about. 20 years later, I'm the one who's on here now selling you my fiction and arguing my points.

Because I got story. I'd had story my whole life. Both my grandfather and my mother would spend hours sitting with me and telling me stories, engaging me with narrative. They would encourage me to tell them stories, and I would talk, and I began to write, and I would draw them comic books.

There are people out there in the crime community, like Allan Guthrie and Charles Ardai, who were good enough to look through early work of mine, work that didn't fit an acceptable standard of grammar or formatting, and to encourage me.

Narrative is what we pin things on. It's how our brain stores information, how it files our memory as we go along. Ideas are what make us pick up the pen, or open the laptop. Ideas are what make us run around the room as a child pretending to be an aeroplane.

We've all seen films that are technically brilliant, but where it's clear the filmmaker or the writer had nothing to say, or didn't know what they wanted to say. I'm sure we've read many many books that have perfect grammar, but not a single moment of life.

Because priorities can be off. The wrong thing can be encouraged. Format can win over content, and rules can win over imagination. I've seen it, I've lived it.

But as I said up at the top, my dyslexia isn't the point. If and when I throw it into conversations like this, then i'll get, "well, in your case..." or "of course, if there is a disability." It's a good thing to throw in to get people thinking differently, but it's also something that takes the conversation down a blind alley.

I'm not saying that kids with dyslexia should be exempt from the grammar police. I'm saying there is a problem with the grammar police. For all kids, and adults, who are looking to learn to read and write, the rulebook should be something that comes later. Get them engaged. Get them involved. Get them confident enough to express themselves. Get them to enjoy expressing themselves. Get them to the point that they care about clarity, and everything else, including the rulebook, will follow from there. We need to not make grammar into a song and dance. Not get it to the point when people -as I have done- can stare at a page panicking over whether or not the work fits the rules, or whether I'll look stupid.

On the rare occasions that crazy people come to me asking for advice on a piece of writing, or struggling to get something down, I only have one real question for them, "what are you trying to say?" Talking to Dave at the weekend recording an interview for his next release, I hit a wall in how to phrase a question and he did pretty much the same thing, "what are you trying to get to?"

That's what matters, and that is really the only rule. Elmore Leonard had ten of them, and he's a better writer than me, but I only really have one.


Get clarity. Get to what you want to say. Figure that out, and then figure out the clearest way to say it. If you do that, then chances are everything else will take care of itself.


What's the point in me coming all this way without giving a few tips to people who have the same panics as myself, people intimidated by grammar. I have a few things that I keep in mind when i'm writing, and they help me find that clarity that I crave.

1. Forget that it's writing.Think of the language as it was meant to be, verbal and flowing. Think of what you want to say, and the clearest way to say it, then right it down.

2. Any time you want to pause or take a breath, thats when to throw in some punctuation.

3. It's worth reading back through your work in reverse order, a section or paragraph at a time. If it's seems clear backwards, then chances are you've structured it well enough.


For the whovians out there, or just general podcast fans, i've take up a guest spot on the Fuzzy Typewriter podcast to talk about the new series of Doctor Who. I filled in a little of my history of the show in last weeks episode, and i'll be back in this weeks to talk about episode 6.2, Day Of the Moon. Chances are the show will already be available by the time this post goes up.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Because I've spent most of my time working in special education, I've worked with some students who are dyslexic, and it sucks. I've also worked with some students who have other visual processing issues, and those suck big-time too.

The only thing I'll say, so that there's no confusion on the point, is that I don't put grammar ahead of the creative side. I think they're equal, and I think there are times for emphasis on both. To say that one always, in every situation, comes before the other would be wrong. When I work with business communication students, grammar and punctuation and formatting are all very important.

On the teaching side, I don't know how anyone can pass high school here without knowing the fundamentals, though. I'm working in grade 12 this year, so it's all front and center with me every day. In order to pass HSA tests or complete the bridge to graduate, you have to know what modifiers are, how to identify and use them, and what they modify. And for that reason, it does frustrate me that teachers aren't really teaching it. I don't expect it to be the daily lecture, but it should be covered, because it's a high school diploma graduation requirement to demonstrate you understand it.

I guess what I really don't get is the idea that in a school environment, other than in creative writing, that a teacher wouldn't cover it. That confuses me. And frustrates me when I then need to spend time teaching my kids what they don't get at school, and should. (And that doesn't only apply to English. Last week, s-daughter had a math sheet that she had no idea how to deal with, on converting pounds and ounces. This isn't the first time I've had to do a math lesson before one of the kids could do their homework because they didn't understand. The school asks us not to, because they want to know what the kids understood from class, but s-son's grade 2 math teacher also admitted sometimes she forgot to explain the homework, and that's not fair to a kid. I always thought homework was supposed to be a review of what you learned in class, not an introduction to a new concept most kids won't be able to figure out without instruction.)

Gerald So said...

I like what you have to say about clarity, Jay, and as I've commented on Dave's grammar post, I see good grammar as a way to achieve clarity. It's arguably the best way because it's the most standard, but it's not the only way.

I understand the policy of letting questionable usage slide at earlier grade levels, but I don't like where it ultimately leads--to older students and graduates who don't know how to make themselves clear.

Just think how many bloggers spend hours defending themselves in comments because they don't/can't make the scope of their thoughts clear in their original posts.

Dana King said...

Clarity is, and should always be, the key. The catch is, the rules of grammar have evolved over the years as a way of helping to ensure that clarity.

I don;t want to turn kids off, either. In fact, I think one of the primary failings of American education is how we drum the joy of reading out of kids. On the other hand, we're in the process of producing college graduates who can't string together coherent sentences. Part of my job is to serve as the subject matter expert for a software application, so i regularly get drafts of training materials to go over from the instructional designers. It's rare that I can get through more than a couple of pages without having to clarify something (usually due to clumsy grammar). At least once per document I'll send something back because I don;t know what the hell it means, and I'm the expert. What chance does a reader have?

I'm sorry, Jay, but your analogies are also flawed. It might well matter in which order some of the switches are thrown, and the pilot needs to know which they are. As for the carpenter, he'd better know at least a few basics, or the seat's going to collapse. Same thing with grammar. It's not the most important thing, but it supports what's important.

Nigel Bird said...

What a well put together piece. The comments are also well made afterwards.
Children with difficulties, literacy-based or otherwise, have a tough time in the classroom. It's vital that they are presented with ideas and learning in the way that works best for them for a good chunk of the time and that they are asked to record work in ways that are motivating, challenging or successful. Photos, mind-maps, voice-recorders, pictures, models, use of a scribe...are all great tools. You mention, Jay, that motivation is key and should come before writing down. I'd substitute 'writing' for 'recording'.
In order to work effectively, it takes a huge amount of planning and support to be able to fully support those with severe manifestations of dyslexia and other conditions. The teachers need to be prepared to put in the effort, to be able to liaise with experts in the field, to accept help, to read up on their subjects, to make careful checks into the records of a pupil and so on. The government's/council's part of the deal is to adequately fund what is required.
We need to ensure everything we do is motivation for a child - not an easy task - and we can't be bound by fear of inspectors or the curriculum when we need to come in from left field, right field or drop in in a rocket.
Best blog I know on teaching and dyslexia is by @HileryWilliams who puts together http://hileryjane.wordpress.com/
I'm going to leave that post to stop me rambling.
Really like the post.

Dave White said...

Good post.

Sandra, I'd love to see the rubrics for the HSA. Here in NJ writing is graded as if it's a rough draft (at least in 8th grade), so the rubric says that as long as the errors don't detract from meaning, it's not held against them.

Dana King said...

Talking about the HSA got me thinking. I'd be much more forgiving in a timed, pressure environment (understanding this is really a glorified first draft) than I would when time for contemplation (and editing) had been provided.