Tuesday, November 14, 2006


In case you're wondering or haven't yet figured it out, I don't have an English Lit or English Comp background. To be honest, when I was in school I found those kind of classes incredibly boring and I only took the minimum required. I might also note that even though my work has appeared in a number of literary journals, newspapers and magazines, I only lasted a couple of weeks in the one journalism course I opted for in college.

So, no, I don't always put the commas in the right places, I can't spell worth a gosh durn and I wouldn't know a split infinitive if one walked up and hit me upside the head. Of course, those of you with more discerning eyes already know this (smile).

But here's a little something you might not know--I also don't have that internalized sense of fear that seems to besiege quite a few of the more "grammatically savvy" when it comes to writing. I don't agonize over the technical aspects involved in the creative placement of words onto a page. That's not to say that I think grammar, punctuation, spelling and the like are unimportant. They are extremely important. My thing is, I simply refuse to have some disapproving nymph of my own making (much less someone else's) peering over my shoulder and whispering reprimands and/or inappropriate advice in my ear when I sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper or computer screen.

My approach to writing is largely intuitive. According to Mom, when I was a baby, she and others would routinely hand me a book turned upside down and watch me cry until someone turned the book right side up. Besides being amused, my folks couldn't help but marvel at how I seemed to sense that something about the book just wasn't right.

Perhaps this intuition, this gut approach, if you will, is something I inherited. I come from a family of storytellers (at least on my father's side) and folks who seem to derive an inordinate amount of pleasure from a well told lie. Similar to Langston (and so many others), my appreciation for what is generally referred to as the African American oral tradition was born at my paternal grandmother's knee.

Ethel Virginia Johnson, (yes, that's her in the picture, seated on the porch of the house my granddaddy built) also known as M'Deah and/or Ethel V. to those who knew and loved her, could spin a tale like nobody's business. Her stories, which could best be described as a bubbling mixture of humor and pathos, generally centered around the folks and family members who live in "Johnson Sub"-- the 40 some odd acres of land in South Memphis (TN) purchased by my great-great grandfather, Prince Johnson.

My M'Deah's voice and her laughter are integral parts of the "music" I strive for in my own work. I will be forever grateful to my Mom for ecouraging me, way back in the day, to sit down with my grandmother and record both her memories of Johnson Sub and our family's history. I still have those tapes and every now and then, I pull them out for a listen. In my grandmother's voice, there is a rhythm and a cadence that both stirs my muse and speaks to my soul . . . Yeah, I know. I'm going way too deep for some of y'all. So, let me just back up off it a bit . . . at least for now (smile).

To simplify it for you--what my M'Deah did so effortlessly and with such verbal finesse, is what I attempt to do on paper. No more and no less. Through the telling of my own stories, I hope to honor her memory as well as pay homage to all that is Southern, Black, female and inherently Good in me. So, if I misspell a word or misplace a comma or two in the process, try not to be so hard or take it too personally, okay? And if you notice me making the same doggone grammatical faux pas time and time again, by all means, step in and school a sister. I'm open to learning . . . just so long as you don't try to turn my words upside down in the process (smile). Nuff said? All right, then.


Christopher Chambers said...

Yeah, luckily most of these literary conventions are just that--conventions. Knowledge of the formal "rules" is great, but there's no need for slavish devotion to them. Indeed, the critics, editors (even old teachers) only pull out the rule book when they want to bring you down on a technicality. That's why someone like james Patterson (when he is actually writing) can use the syntax, grammar and styles of a ten year old and everyone cheers ('cause he's making someone some cash).

I'm glad you've found your voice, using your grandmother's as the foundation. We do nothing alone!her's

Lori said...

Chris C.,
Thanks for the affirmation. Interestingly enough, I have one of your books--SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL. I bought it a couple years ago at a library book sale in Ohio. Haven't had chance to read it yet. For the moment, it's keeping company with all of the other books on my "gotta get around to reading one day" shelf! (smile)