“If thou of fortune be bereft
and in thy store there be but left
two loaves, sell one, and with the dole,
buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.”
— John Greenleaf Whittier
I’m not a huge fan of poetry, but I sure like these lines from Whittier. I first learned of them years ago in some book or other about teatime. I instantly understood the meaning, which is basically that we need sustenance for the soul just as surely as we need sustenance for the body.
And that brings me to the topic of writer groceries. Every year at this time, I find myself totaling the amounts I’ve spent on writing-related books and magazines in the past year so all these purchases can be reported to Uncle Sam on my taxes. Did I really need one more book about the writing craft? Or another book on plotting? And the answer is yes. Yes I did. I needed to know more about the mechanics of grammar. I needed to know more about how to write snappy dialogue. I needed to know how to create the basic plot structure of a cozy mystery, and all of these topics have come to me in the form of books. I have termed such purchases writer groceries, and I no longer feel guilty about them.
Few things make me sadder than to hear someone say, “I have too many books.” Do we ever believe that we have too many ideas? Too many moments of sheer joy? Too many hopes for a better future? Too many insights into the ways of the world? Too many epiphanies? Then we can never have too many books, because books inspire such things.
(I do not argue, however, that we might not occasionally run out of room for all of our books, but this is why God gave us bookshelves and Kindles, right?)
So if you find yourself purchasing a lot of writer groceries as well, I say, lighten up on yourself. Just as there should always be room in life for one more friend, there should always be room for one more book. Books are our hyacinths for the soul, and Uncle Sam will just have to understand.
Or perhaps I should rephrase that, because it’s actually the only $70 book I’m excited about, and it’s the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, coming this September. When I was a newspaper reporter earlier in my career, I was well acquainted with The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the standard in the newspaper industry. When the newspaper I worked for later purchased a magazine and I became its editor, I began going to magazine conferences and learned that in magazine world, The Chicago Manual of Style was the standard in stylebooks.
I quickly learned that some of the CMOS rules were different from the AP rules I was accustomed to using. For instance, AP Style is to spell out whole numbers one through nine and use numerals for the others. In other words: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and 10. And did you notice that I didn’t place a comma after the word “nine”? That’s because in AP Style, you don’t use the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma.
If I were writing numbers in Chicago Style, however, the list would say one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and so on, all spelled out up to and including one hundred. Did you notice that I did have a comma before the words “and so on”? That’s because Chicago Style does use the serial comma.
Now I’m aware every writer is not going to get as excited about a new style manual as I am. But as someone who edits books, I like learning more about the CMOS grammar rules, and I especially like being able to help my clients make their writing consistent with the standards in CMOS (pronounced something like “sea moss”). Writers who pay for professional editing may not feel the need to have their own copy of CMOS, but I would encourage any writer to consider getting a copy. It’s a wonderful resource, it’s the standard for the publishing industry, and it contains answers to countless questions that come up in the course of my editing and writing work. So when September rolls around, I’ll gladly pony up my $70 to see how CMOS has changed, and I can’t wait. Do any of you already use either the AP Stylebook or CMOS?
Several years ago, I hosted a bridal luncheon for a friend’s daughter, and my hostess gift was a copy of the delightful book I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar by Sharon Eliza Nichols (St. Martin’s Press, 2009). Nichols created a Facebook group by that same title, and she shares some of the best of the thousands of the group’s photos of misspelled and ungrammatical signs. One photo is of a clearance bin in a store, but it’s marked “clearence.” It reminds me of the new antique store I visited where a door had an arrow pointing to the “Enterance,” which I thought was rather a creative spelling.
Quite a few photos in the book show the public’s propensity for sticking apostrophes where they don’t belong, like the sign that read: “TRAY’S — Please return your tray’s.” Other photos show funny typos, like the “clearance” one or the school banner for “Homecoming Spirt Week,” which made the author say, “Wonder what they’re spirting.”
I do notice grammar errors, and I am constantly tempted to comment on them, but I rarely do because if people want my help, they’ll ask for it. (And some do. Some even pay me for it!) Besides, when you start to feel superior to others, in grammar or in any other sphere, you are practically begging for a takedown, and I have enough opportunities in life to exercise humility without begging for more. So when I saw in a public forum on Facebook last week that someone was making fun of the intellect of Christians and those who are homeschooled, I stared at my computer screen and sat on my hands rather than point out that the writer had in fact misspelled both “Christians” and “homeschooled.” If someone wants to be snarky, getting upbraided by a snarky commenter probably isn’t going to help matters, is it?
Recently I read an old interview with Miss Manners, aka Judith Martin, and she said, “I don’t believe in answering rudeness with rudeness under any circumstances.” I think that’s a great rule to follow, in grammar and in life. Do you agree?
Signature-reads.com recently posted an article on “The 27 Best Books on Writing.” I was surprised to find how many of them I own, and I couldn’t help reflecting on the books on writing that have influenced me the most. Among them:
• Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle. This book deserves its own blog post, and one day it will get it, but for now I’ll just say that I was intrigued to learn that she compared her writing to the way French peasants cook: “There are several pots on the back of the stove, and as I go by during the day’s work, I drop a carrot in one, an onion in another, a chunk of meat in another. When it comes time to prepare the meal, I take the pot which is most nearly full and bring it to the front of the stove. So it is with writing.”
• The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Last year I met with a new friend at a local coffee shop, and one of the first things she asked me was, “So how many copies of The Elements of Style do you own?” Only two, I told her, and I was impressed she knew about this book, which I became acquainted with in college. My journalism professor often quoted the line “Omit needless words,” and it’s one of the all-time best quotes on writing. (“Omit needless words” is good advice for life as well. I regret some of the words I did say more than the words I didn’t say, but then I have a gift for sticking my foot in my mouth.)
• Creative Writing for People Who Can’t Not Write by Kathryn Lindskoog. This book didn’t make the Signature list, but it makes mine for this line that always makes me smile: “If our water supply were as muddy as much of our pretentious prose, all flavors of Jell-O would look brown.” As someone who values good, clear writing, I adore that “Jell-O” bit.
And if you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to hear about the books on writing that have most influenced you!