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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Grammar makes liars of us all

When people find out that I write fiction, they often ask where I get my ideas,  how I come up with characters, where I get their names, how I found an agent, etc. I always answer, but the odds are I'm lying.

Deirdre of the Sorrows
Here's what I mean. The main character in The Fool's Journey is named Deirdre Kildeer.  I loved the name Deirdre when I was a romantic adolescent and, because the character Deirdre changed her identity when she was young, I reasoned that a girl with poetic tendencies like my own might choose a name associated with myth and tragedy. (I also liked the name "Antigone," but it doesn't look as good on the page.) Deirdre's surname began as Kildare. She is also a university professor and I realized that students might address her as Dr. Kildare -- which raised specters of Richard Chamberlain in his 1960s series of the same name. Alike in sound, "Kildeer"  popped into my head, perhaps because my friend Meg is from Kildeer, North Dakota. This worked well because Kill+deer (dear)  added  psychological symbolism into Deirdre's choice of name.

This explanation is sheer invention. Very little of my character-naming process was a matter of decision. As I wrote, synapses fired and connected and I went with them. That is what we call inspiration, or creativity or the Muse. It became fiction when I superimposed the sequence and grammar necessary for explaining how I came up with the name.

Inventive thought is interior, full of words and images. We make sense of the mental melange and are able to communicate it only when we add structure. The explanation above contains elements that are true, but are only one version of what happened in my brain when I was writing. To me, the interesting thing is that ideas will never come to anything unless you translate them -- in jotted notes, word maps, outlines, conversation -- by adding some kind of grammar.  If we didn't need to tell anyone anything we wouldn't need grammar. Interior thought would be sufficient. James Britton, who called this inventive phenomenon "shaping at the point of utterance," encouraged teachers to allow and support the inventiveness that arises out of articulating semi-formed ideas in both numerous drafts and in conversations about them; this, as opposed to lock-step manner of "first draft-only draft-done" so many of us suffered in our schooling. I might also add, that if we must teach formal grammar, a focus on how its structural components help us communicate would not go amiss.


  1. What a perfect description of the process, Mary. It's a mystery how those synapses fire. Rationality jumps in after the fact (oddly, to fictionalize), but why should that be necessary?

  2. Rationality is highly over-rated, I find :)