“When you’re not feeling well,” said Carol Burling of Pathways,
“details are not your friend.”
Pathways is a healing center in Uptown that serves people with
“life-threatening or chronic physical illness” who “seek healing
for body, mind, and spirit.” I went there in the fall of 2016 with
someone who is very dear to me, and I remember thinking this place
lives up to its mission. It really did provide “a safe, warm,
creative, and nurturing environment.” And it wasn’t just “for
people affected by health crisis.” It was also for caregivers.
It wasn’t until Carol’s voice wrapped around me like a warm soft
blanket that I realized how much I was hurting. Beyond all the
medical detail and the minutia of practical decisions, I thought,
what would it be like to lose the most important person in my
life? What really matters in the end?
Details are not your friend when you have so much to deal with,
Carol said. Like getting well. Like staying alive.
Now as I reflect on how details affect (not effect) us, I
realize I’ve spent a good deal of my own life teaching the details
of language – the rules of grammar and punctuation, correct word
choice, and the mechanics of good sentence structure. I’ve taught
thousands of students and writers how to check to see if their
verbs agree in number with their subjects, how to identify and
eliminate comma splices (especially with the words however
and therefore), and how to maintain parallel structure in a
series or a vertical list (She was healthy, wealthy, and
athletic, not She was healthy, wealthy, and an athlete).
But when you’re feeling stressed and rushed, when you feel
pressured to meet a deadline or to get the job done, language
rules are not your friend. Who cares where the apostrophe goes as
long as the reader understands your message? What really matters
in the end?
As I told a group of writers with MnDOT a couple of weeks ago and
another group with the Wilder Foundation a few weeks before that,
it isn’t the rules that really count. You can break any rule you
like as long as you do so for stylistic effect (and as long as
your departure is appropriate for your purpose, your audience, and
the occasion). The rules are only a way of getting to where you
want to go. They’re the means, not the end.
What really matters, I said to those writers, is that we begin by
talking about language – well-turned sentences, distracting
errors, persuasive strategies – and before long you’re telling
your stories. You’re sharing your values and goals, your hopes and
dreams, and then you’re describing the kind of world you want this
What a privilege for me to be granted permission to snoop on your
professional (and personal) lives. Language, which is a construct
governed by myriad rules, is a beautiful and wondrous thing, but
our words are only a means of arriving at our destination. In the
end, we want to connect.