Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Back To Basics

There are many things about parenthood that are difficult. Some will put you out of your element. Some will just test your faith. You want to hear an odd little secret? One of the hardest things for me was teaching my kids reading and writing. I know, right? Are you confused and perplexed and wondering what my flippin’ problem is? I was pretty astounded myself. I figured English would be a gimme – they had such an edge on that one with a writer for a mother.

The problem was fairly simple – I had to go back through steps that I didn’t remember anymore. I didn’t remember learning the basics and the fact that I write all the time didn’t help, if anything I think it actually hindered the process. It was frustrating trying to explain something that I took so much for granted.

I love language. I love etymology and the way way words fit together. But I didn’t fully realize how much of this I know by rote – the weird spelling rules, placing commas, sentence construction. Oy. I hit a few points where I wanted to throw my hands up in the air and say, “Just memorize that bit, there’s no reasoning here, English is just a hodgepodge of contradictions!” Which is probably true in some cases, but it’s also one of the reasons I like it.

Explaining it to a kid who has no reference wasn’t easy... my oldest got the worst of my teaching skills here. Fortunately, she’s also naturally good with English and language, so she managed just fine with my convoluted attempts to explain the ‘why’s’. By the time my youngest started school, I had a pretty good system down. It’s become much easier for me to help him write in complete sentences and learn spelling and all of that, but I had to go back to the basics first.

I took an article writing course this past fall to brush up my skills and help me get my footing. I’m working on expanding my freelance writing into different markets and, while I like the business-to-business and ghost writing I’ve done over the last few years, I really want to start cracking into other paying venues, preferably with my byline. Great course, by the way, if anyone’s interested in expanding their writer’s toolbox, I highly recommend classes with Christina Katz.

When I started, the main objective for me was to get tips on querying for regional markets, and to brush up on the business end of that market. I didn’t realize I was so rusty on the actual article writing process, and I was more than a little annoyed with myself. I’d spent so much of my writing time devoted to long fiction that I’d forgotten how to structure an article well and even found I was making mistakes that, once they were caught, made me literally slap my forehead. So I had to go back to the basics again.

I’ve got my Strunk and White and Chicago Manual of Style on my desk now – they were gathering dust on a shelf. I’m trying to just peruse here and there and brush up, because it never hurts to get a refresher. So how about you guys? Anything you found yourself having to brush up on? Do you specialize in a certain area of writing and, if you do, do you find it difficult to switch gears (say from fiction to non-fiction, or long fiction to short)? And once you get to a fairly advanced level in your craft, do you find it hard to explain the basics to people?

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