Monday Motivation: Who can tell the dancer from the dance?
For the past week or so I’ve feasted on a memoir called Educated by Tara Westover, a Cambridge PhD history graduate who began life as the youngest daughter of a religious and political extremist who believed that the only way to avoid the tentacles of a world-wide conspiracy was to remain off the grid entirely – and, more consequentially, to prevent his children from being corrupted by the US government in all its manifestations.
This meant keeping them as far away from school – and the polluting influence of education – as he possibly could.
Tara nevertheless conceived a desire for education, taught herself enough to pass the entrance exam to Brigham Young University in Utah. There her innate intelligence was recognized – and a professor nominated her to take part in a short programme at Cambridge, in England.
At Cambridge her work was supervised by a professor of history who read her weekly essays and commented on them.
And it’s these comments, as reported by Tara Westover, that particularly struck my eye. Here’s what she said about Professor Steinberg’s remarks:
“No comma, no period, no adjective or adverb was beneath his interest. He made no distinction between grammar and content, between form and substance. A poorly written sentence was a poorly conceived idea, and in his view the grammatical logic was as much in need of correction. ‘Tell me,’ he would say, ‘why have you placed this comma here? What relationship between these phrases are you hoping to establish?’ When I gave my explanation, sometimes he would say, ‘Quite right,’ and other times he would correct me with lengthy explanations of syntax.”
Grammar and syntax aren’t features of your writing that you can leave to some hypothetical editor to “tidy up”. I have always felt that beauty is to be found not in gorgeous descriptions so much as in clarity of expression. In fact, that gorgeous description won’t work if its meaning is opaque, or its expression ambiguous. Form, in fact, is substance.
W.B. Yeats once posed the unanswerable question: Who can tell the dancer from the dance?
To me, how you write something and what you write are the equivalents of the dancer and the dance. There is no dancer without a dance – and no dance without dancer.
And if you venture into the deeper seas of long sentences, then the grammatical architecture of those sentences becomes hugely more important. But even short sentences have to be balanced within themselves; and if you’re writing a series of short sentences, then they have to be joined hip and thigh in terms of their logic and their development.
Take this very simple example that leapt out at me just a few pages later in Westover’s memoir.
Another professor takes her to task for feeling inadequate at Cambridge because of her hillbilly wardrobe. He references Eliza Doolittle of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and says, “She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself. Then it didn’t matter what dress she wore.”
Think about the simplicity of that little passage. Think about how its effect would have been diluted if, say, Westover had chosen to turn those first two sentences into one – or indeed, as many writers might have, all three into one. The pause implied by the full stop separating them sets up the power of the second. And the third underlines in the simplest of language the lesson the professor wished to teach Westover.
Unless your ideas are expressed in the clearest of language, they won’t possess the authority they deserve.
So don’t think of grammar as that subject you paid no attention to at school – if it was taught at all! – but as the skeletal essence of your writing. Wonky grammar results in fuzzy writing. And fuzzy writing simply isn’t what you want to deliver to your reader.