Monthly Archives: February 2015

Between You and Me…

…I have always loved grammar. In seventh grade I would diagram sentences for fun. Latin was the perfect language for me,  a devotee of indirect objects and  a prepositional phrase groupie. If you want to know whether to use lie or lay, I’m your girl.

But punctuation?  Of course I abide by the difference between its and it’s, a semicolon and a colon, a dash and a hyphen (I think). Yet when I write I’m free with my commas, using them for effect and cadence as much as anything else.

Enter my good, warm, witty friend Mary Norris with another perspective.  A copywriter for the New Yorker, she is as firm in her opinions as the good nuns who taught us both, yet leaves more room for questions than they ever did. Her wonderful book, “Between You and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen”, will be out in April. Here’s an example of what you have to look forward to.

Department of Mom

Many years ago, after I published my first novel, my mother wrote a letter to the editors of the New York Times Book Review. Why, she demanded, had they not reviewed Tricia Springstubb’s excellent book? Clearly it was better than 9/10 of the drivel featured in their pages. Obviously this was an up and coming talent. What seemed to be their problem?

I don’t believe she got a reply.

My mother was a master of the Letter of Complaint. When our family, including me, arrived at my graduation from SUNY at Albany, an event akin to a cattle round-up, we were too late to snag a seat, and had to watch it on TV in an auditorium. Graduation was a non-event for me, but my mother went ballistic. Every member of the New York State Board of Regents heard about it. I’m pretty sure the governor got wind as well.

She dashed off angry letters to hospitals, mechanics, insurance agents, food companies, all the usual suspects and more. One of her greatest triumphs was the note she wrote to Cutty Sark, protesting their TV ad: “You’ve made the last alimony payment. Time to launch a  Cutty.” Mom found this not only crass but morally offensive (when I informed  her it was also misogynst, she didn’t want to hear it–she disliked the word feminist, but that’s another story). One afternoon a delivery man showed up at our front door with a case of Cutty and an official note of apology. I seem to remember some discussion about whether or not to accept this  bribe, and my father putting a quick end to any doubt.

My mother was much more than a scold. She wrote short stories, light verse, bits of memoir. And she read. And read. She was a sharp critic, but with writers she loved she became a push-over, giving herself over completely to character and story. I’ve been doing lots of school visits lately, and when kids ask me where I got my inspiration to be a writer, the words “my mother” fly out of me. I became a writer because I’m a reader, and I’m a reader because of her.

Still, I hear her voice best in those Letters of Outrage. (Full disclosure: I love to write angry dialogue. Nothing’s more fun than writing a furious, knock-down argument!) She had strong, unshakeable views, and knew how the world should run. She was on the side of the underdog, the Everyman (I’d add Everywoman but she wouldn’t like it.) Life with all its terrible inequity was ever a struggle for her, and she never quit battling.

Another thing I’ve been telling the kids I talk to: I write for you because you care so deeply about things, and because you have such a deep sense of what’s fair and what isn’t.

“Moonpenny Island”, was just reviewed in the NY Times. It’s a lovely, thoughtful piece, and I can hardly say how gratifying it is, as a writer, to be read by someone who understands and appreciates what you meant to do. (Someone who, in fact, makes you sound far smarter than you will ever be!)

How badly I wish Mom could read the review. I’d give anything to see her eyebrows shoot up and her finger jab the air as she said, “About time they listened to me!”