The Tools in the Box

We’re still slamming around in the gale unleashed by my lighthearted survey of last week. But since results are still trickling in, I will not yet attempt any synthesis of results or responses to the very nature of the game. Instead, please consider this an extended footnote from my peculiar domain of academe, which is the doing and teaching of fiction writing.

I fully expect comments that question what the academy is doing messing around in the realm of creative writing in the first place, but I hope the discussion doesn’t get pulled in that direction. Here I’d like to stick to word choice, syntax choice, grammar choice.

In Sunday’s Modern Love column in The New York Times, I ran across the sentence “He didn’t even know I hadn’t smoked or drank in 10 years.” I read it aloud over breakfast, and it didn’t jar my partner. But it jarred me. Strictly speaking, the reason to take umbrage at the column is the opinion that “I had drank” is incorrect. The verb conjugates as “I drink; I drank; I have drunk.” Of course the word “drunk” might imply drunkenness, and it may well be that the author or editor changed “I hadn’t smoked or drunk in 10 years” because she guessed that readers would conjure an image of the author as a slovenly drunkard. If that guess is accurate, then the sentence may be better in its current form, an alternative to traditional conjugation.

But what remains jarring to me about that form is that a narrator who says, “I had drank that wine” or “I drunk it right down” gives himself away (or so we fiction writers presume) as belonging to one of several social types and not to others. Other markers—use of “y’all” or “ain’t,” or “that hossie better get along” would help indicate whether the same narrator is from the deep South or the deep North, or a cowboy, or a dude rancher, or a preppie making fun of other social types, or Lord knows what else. The choices are myriad; “drank” is the tip of the iceberg.

But that iceberg is the stuff of the fiction profession, and those of us who teach in that profession try mightily to instruct our students in the deft use of their linguistic tools. For a while, this effort for me included laying out the traditional conjugation of transitive “lay” versus intransitive “lie.” If you inadvertently have a persnickety grammarian-type character saying, “I need to lay down,” this argument went, you are giving the reader mixed signals, whether or not the reader is aware of how the verbs are parsed. By contrast, if you want to demonstrate the scanty education of your perfidious murderer, you might have him write his confession with a solecism like “He just lied [or layed] there.” However, in a number of recent novels, I’ve noticed that otherwise exemplary fictional speakers of standard English are using “lay” intransitively. If this usage shift becomes universal, we fiction writers will have lost a tool from our toolbox, and there will no further point in teaching students how to deploy it. That, more than right/wrong or descriptive/prescriptive dichotomies, is our main concern.

In my latest novel, I have a meth addict who is getting fired say of work that day, “I shouldn’t of come in”; and of a love interest, “If I could of had her, I would of.” My copy editor changed these locutions to “could have” and “could’ve.” I read the various versions aloud; I tried to tell myself there was no auditory difference between “shouldn’t of” and “shouldn’t’ve”; I tried to rationalize that even though this particular meth addict might write “could of,” he is not writing but speaking in the scene. In the end, I restored “of,” hoping that my readers would hear my character better that way and would not assign the solecism to the author.

Artists need to know their paints, their brushes, their canvases; composers need to know keys, scales, harmony, meter. Fiction writers and poets need to know language, in as many registers as possible, to create worlds made entirely of words.

P.S. Wed. morning — I have updated the penultimate paragraph to clarify what was confusing to some readers.

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