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A Grammatical Affair

 

The idea for A Grammatical Affair came to me from a character named Lester who kept appearing in some of the 900 columns on effective writing I’ve written since 1991 for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and other newspapers. It occurred to me that many stylebooks use humor and anecdote to engage the reader – from The Elements of Style to The Transitive Vampire, Woe is I, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft – but none incorporates fully developed characters, plot, and conflict in a full-length narrative. Later, when I read Yoko Ogawa’s novel/mathematical treatise, The Housekeeper and the Professor, I realized Ogawa had done with mathematics what I was attempting to do with language.

 

My challenge in writing my 300-page, 89,000-word novel/memoir/writing handbook/poem was to balance the two elements, so that the love story is as compelling as the language instruction is useful. As with songs in a musical production, I embedded 40 columns into the story (with indexed topics for easy reference – my book really is meant to be instructional), but unlike many musicals with lovely songs but thin story lines, I tried to give the narrative equal weight.
 

 

To add another layer, I presented my story within the framework of the Wendell Berry poem, “How To Be a Poet,” with snippets quoted at the beginning of each chapter and the poem in its entirety appearing in the Epilogue. Allusions to Romeo and Juliet, Rodolpho and Musetta, The Song of Hiawatha, the origins of rhymed poetry as explained by the narrator’s three-year-old son, Henry David Thoreau’ portrayal of the instantaneous arrival of spring, and Iris Murdock’s loss of language will appeal to literary nerds who love reading about literature and language.

 

The plot follows the life of an English major (both me and not me) who becomes a newspaper columnist devoted to ridding the world of misplaced commas, noun stacks, and dangling participles while patrolling the streets of Minneapolis in his CommaMobile, a man perplexed by the existential question of how language both informs his life and creates its own reality. Torn between his love for family and his passion for language, he is wracked with guilt when his wife Juliet discovers a used eraser beneath their bed sheets. To escape the tedium of reviewing writing samples submitted by seminar participants, he hires a horse trainer named Joe who resembles a black Ichabod Crane and whose life was forever changed by reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, and together they dream of the day when their black stallion Dangling Participle will bring them riches and fame. Everywhere he travels, from sailing across Lake Superior with his crew members Maximillion and Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli to presenting a paper in Aix-en-Provence titled “Lake Wobegon: Mythical Place and the American Imagination” (later published by the journal American Studies), he encounters a beautiful green-eyed woman with amber hair who tries to seduce him while challenging his assumptions about language and meaning. When his grasp of language and reality fails him late in life, as it failed his mother who died from Alzheimer’s, Juliet takes him by the hand and leads him without coat and mittens to sit in the snow beneath their backyard crabapple tree, where he once encountered William Carlos Williams’ alphabet of the trees, and in the silence that follows a poem is written.

I've just begun sending my manuscript to publishers. Wish me luck. And let me know if you'd like me to send you a publication notice. I won't share your email address with other parties.