I had to pause before answering. The rules are so innate (even though I don’t and won’t ever know them all) that I can’t recall when I became fascinated with them. I know they weren’t always a part of it; like anyone else, I had to learn the building blocks of sentences. I learned new spelling and vocabulary words, diagrammed sentences, memorized prepositions. Even then I enjoyed the way words sounded and the way they could be put together to form sentences, paragraphs, and stories. Did the rules become a part of my writing life during those years?
I doubt it. I dreaded diagramming sentences, especially the convoluted ones designed to stymie the best of the best. When then? Junior high literature with Mrs. Borsberry, the teacher who introduced me to metaphor and foreshadow and irony? Or was it Miss Barrientos with her dissection of Beowulf?
I don’t know. I only know that Dr. Pogue’s words, given during an undergraduate American Modern class, brought comfort: “If you obsess about ‘a,’ ‘an,’ and ‘the,’ you’re meant to be an English major.” Suddenly, I was not alone in my obsession with words and rules. Other people were as obsessed. I just hadn’t met them yet.
Dr. Pogue’s words probably served as some sort of catalyst, but I have come to believe my obsession is in no small part due to reading and writing poetry. In poetry, each word counts. Each punctuation mark counts. Everything matters, even the white space. What is the effect of a dash or an ellipsis? What sound does that punctuation mark make? How should the poem end? Should it taper or break? How will the poem sound when read aloud? Do the words crash and tumble into each other? Do they splinter? If they do splinter, why? What point does it serve? Is it meant to complement or juxtapose? How should the poem appear on the page? How does the form inform the content and vice versa?
My obsession with the rules has nothing to do with an obsession for obsession’s sake. If that were true, I’d have temper tantrums any time the rules were broken. My obsession is rooted in sound and rhythm. It is founded upon a belief that punctuation affects those two things. It rests upon the idea that words and punctuation affect not only sound and rhythm but also meaning.
Photo: Laura Olin (CC BY NC 2.0)