In a world of tweeting, texting, chattering, status updates, desktop messaging, flash fiction, and the ubiquitous shrunken novel, rhetoric and the art of epic articulation, sadly, are no longer appreciated and extolled. Murky millennial jargon and cryptic acronyms have replaced the precision of entire phrases and sentences, leaving some of us to wonder if the writer is laughing out loud or sending us lots of love. We are called upon constantly to synopsize, abstract, and shorten our communication and creative expression to meet the limitations of tiny keyboards, available characters, and an attention-deficit audience, even in arenas once characterized by devotion to the written word.

Contributing to the fragmentation of written communication is a seemingly widespread disinterest in and disdain for linguistic constructions in favor of imaginative, less encumbered expression in which punctuation and capitalization are optional. As an aspiring grammarian and the daughter of an English professor and department chair, rules of syntax and grammar have always seemed rudimentary and aptly rigid to me. While I never struggled to grasp the apparent mysteries of the semicolon or the intricacies imposed by the apostrophe, I buy and pore over the rule books nonetheless, honing my skill and fueling my passion for writing that is, first and foremost, right. My writer friend Ian Prichard suffers from the same chromosomal affliction, which he has coined “genetics-based grammarianism.”

Those of us with GBG deem adherence to and mastery of grammatical imperatives to be the undisputed core determinants of good writing and satisfactory performance within, say, the context of a composition course and are puzzled and disturbed by the present disinclination to overwhelm a novice writing student with them. Science, mathematics, business, and other curriculums of absolutes have their determinants, as well, and allegiance to them is unwavering. Failing grades in these programs of study not only reflect inadequate functioning but serve to weed out, while composition teachers are pressured to pass all students, regardless of whether or not grammatical and syntactical proficiency is achieved. Whether this pressure is in response to the questioning of the value of formal rules, societal indifference to standards of excellence in writing, the contemporary watering down of the craft to make it more accessible, or a decline in college and university enrollment, the written product is compromised for the sake of the enterprise.

Because my college and university experience spans thirty years, I have perceived this shift in response to student writing personally. While writing assessment was once a decisive and matter-of-fact highlighting of grammatical errors and structural deficiencies, composition and creative writing teachers (and graduate students studying the teaching of composition) of late seem averse to allocating much time and energy to punctuation, agreement, and other mechanical constrictions, focusing instead on the strength and development of the argument or narrative plot primarily. Even graduate students in current English and creative writing programs criticize professors for marking grammatical errors, deeming the feedback – wait for it – immaterial.

Creative writing workshops, specifically, are hostile environments for participants who call attention to grammatical errors in a peer’s work. It has even been suggested that it is the editor’s job to catch “those problems,” as the writer should not be stifled by such trivial controls. It is a curiosity to me how students who truly fly in the face of language rules are interested in (and accepted into) English and writing programs in the first place.

Communicating well in writing is the ability to inspire, evoke, engage, and transform through words and syntax and rhythm.  It requires the meticulous, unremitting selection of the precise word – and there almost always is that one perfect word – that conveys the author’s meaning, as well as intuitive choices about spacing and pauses and dialogue.  It requires an investment of time and comprehension on both the reader’s and writer’s part and a commitment to legitimate communication. And it requires a respect for and love of punctuation and principles of usage that some of us, thankfully, were fortunate to inherit.


"Schreibender Knabe" ("Writing Boy") by Albert Anker, circa 1908

“Schreibender Knabe” (“Writing Boy”) by Albert Anker, circa 1908

Last Spring

Fill yourself up with the forsythias

and when the lilacs flower, stir them in too

with your blood and happiness and wretchedness,

the dark ground that seems to come with you.


Sluggish days. All obstacles overcome.

And if you say: ending or beginning, who knows,

then maybe – just maybe – the hours will carry you

into June, when the roses blow.


                          ~ Gottfried Benn


"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" by John William Waterhouse, 1909

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” by John William Waterhouse, 1909

A Few Moments

Herself, a day, an hour ago; and herself now. For we have every one of us felt how a very few minutes of the months and years called life, will sometimes suffice to place all time past and future in an entirely new light; will make us see the vanity or the criminality of the by-gone, and so change the aspect of the coming time that we look with loathing on the very thing we have most desired. A few moments may change our character for life, by giving a totally different direction to our aims and energies.


~ From Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1848


"The Seamstress" by Joseph DeCamp, 1916

“The Seamstress” by Joseph DeCamp, 1916

The 2014 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books begins tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. and continues through Sunday at 5:00 p.m. at the University of Southern California.

The Festival is a wonderful opportunity to mingle with hundreds of authors, attend panel discussions with bestselling novelists and industry experts on writing and the publishing business, and enjoy live music, visual art, and cultural entertainment by some of the world’s most creative and celebrated artists.

For a full list of authors and panels featured at this year’s event and to review the program schedule, visit the website at http://events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks.





Gardens are also good places

to sulk. You pass beds of

spiky voodoo lilies

and trip over the roots

of a sweet gum tree,

in search of medieval

plants whose leaves,

when they drop off

turn into birds

if they fall on land,

and colored carp if they

plop into water.


Suddenly the archetypal

human desire for peace

with every other species

wells up in you. The lion

and the lamb cuddling up.

The snake and the snail, kissing.

Even the prick of the thistle,

queen of the weeds, revives

your secret belief

in perpetual spring,

your faith that for every hurt

there is a leaf to cure it.


~ Amy Gerstler from Bitter Angel (New York: North Point Press, 1990)


Marcus Stone, 1900

Marcus Stone, 1900

The 8th Annual Leatherby Libraries Book Sale at Chapman University will be held this year on April 10 and April 11. Hundreds of books on a variety of subjects ranging from anthropology to zoology will be on sale for one dollar each.

Proceeds from the book sale make it possible for the library to purchase more books and support relevant programming and services offered by the library throughout the academic year.

Cash, checks, and credit cards will be accepted, and bags and boxes will be provided for purchases. Refreshments will also be available during the two-day sale.

This is a terrific opportunity to supplement personal book collections while supporting the university library. For more information, visit http://www1.chapman.edu/library/aboutus/events-2014-04-10-BookSale.pdf.



April is National Poetry Writing Month, also known as NaPoWriMo, an annual creative writing event that challenges participants to write a new poem each day from April 1 through April 30. NaPoWriMo coincides with National Poetry Month, which is celebrated annually in America and Canada.

The project was founded by Maureen Thorson in 2003 and modeled after NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, which challenges participants to write 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November. Since its inception, the number of registered participants has grown steadily every year, and many writers’ organizations coordinate NaPoWriMo activities.

Many of us in Chapman University’s MFA program have impending thesis deadlines, and the NaPoWriMo challenge gives poetry students the perfect opportunity and support to complete this last critical component of the degree requirements.

For a comprehensive list of FAQs and guidelines, visit the website at http://www.napowrimo.net.

Have fun, and good luck!




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