My high school English teacher was ferociously unforgiving when it came to the rules of grammar and punctuation. One mistake resulted in an F, one rebellious comma, complete anguish. So, needless to say, I became quite familiar with the rules. I conformed my thoughts to “two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction must have a comma.” I molded my emotions around “use a semicolon between two independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb.” I became quite obsessed with these little rules: quoting them, obeying them, and even passing them on to new generations of English students.
Over the years, however, I’ve experienced a new freedom, a freedom I so wished had been discovered before turning in so many flat and lifeless papers. As the prose editor for Ruminate I have made many mistakes, but the biggest was while editing our first issue. One author, in particular, and if you are reading this I offer my most heartfelt apology because you probably know who you are, received my many, many comma corrections with grace and professionalism. But, even as I was supporting my argument with an almost exegetical confidence, and maybe a little cross-referencing, I knew in my heart that something was wrong, that something was missing.
Over time, like a musician moving from fundamentals to music, I began to feel the phrase, the sentence, and the freedom in between. I was reading for cadence, tone, hearing more than the “black notes” on the page. The punctuation created atmosphere and rhythm. I began inhaling and exhaling, experiencing physically what I was only ever able to experience mentally. And then, while editing a beautiful piece for our upcoming Issue 12, I was struck by a character’s voice, the immediacy with which I found myself inside his head, familiar with his movements and the space he occupied. I knew that the author had accomplished something wonderful, and that punctuation was an important part of this accomplishment.
So, though I don’t fully blame my English teacher for the many restrictive years of applying “the rules,” I am very glad to have found a more soulful purpose for those jots and tittles. And now, can even say thank you, for if I’d never understood the rules, I would have never known freedom.
*That “beautiful piece” can be found in our upcoming summer issue and is by author and playwright Matthew Ira Swaye. Enjoy!
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