Dogs can teach us about the writing life. They can focus on a worthy idea and they can catch it in midair. They live verbs and love nouns. Dogs don’t walk. They saunter, scamper, scurry, and lope. A dog’s nouns are her people, her places, her things– loved hard. Dogs have good instincts– but they need some rules.
Teachers taught me about rules. I learned not to start a sentence with and. And yet I still do. I learned not to begin a sentence with but. But sometimes it just sounds right. I learned to avoid sentence fragments. Most of the time.
It is important to know rules, and it is sometimes important to follow them. Don’t run in the hallway– it isn’t safe. Move your soup spoon away from you as you eat soup– if someone is looking. There are times to show that we know the rules — like at a state dinner, or on a state writing test.
Our favorite writing teachers in Room 204 are our favorite authors. They play fast and loose with the rules, and we like the way their writing sounds. To play with rules you have to know the rules.
Now it is our turn. This week, my third graders will put sentences on leashes. That’s right! This week our sentences are going to obedience school. We will learn to groom them until they are the show dogs of writing conventions. Before we let them off the leash, we must be sure they will respond to commands. We can let them run back into the lively writerly woods of our imaginations–confident that they will come, stay, and heel if necessary. It’s all about the rules.
My mother is 80 and belongs to a writer’s group at her local community center. When I phoned her this weekend she read me her latest piece — The Road Not Taken. I listened to the lovely and familiar cadence of her writing, her humor, and the rich storied meaning of her words. As the daughter of a Naval Officer and the wife of a diplomat, she spent a lifetime learning conventions and rules. She has spent a good bit of her life learning how to break them. But she doesn’t break writing rules– she makes them sing.
As I listened to her read, I realized she taught me to write, just as she taught me to move the soup spoon away from myself when I eat soup. And to place the spoon on the plate that holds the bowl, never in the bowl. At least when someone is looking.
Who taught you to write, and what did you learn?