Saturday, June 25, 2016

Oops...my word nerd is showing

Writing can be a personal expression of creativity, experience, knowledge, expertise and connection. It's an art and a science where the practicality of clarity and crisp communication converge with the creativity of inspiration and flow.

Rules abound in the craft of writing, and many of them deserve respect. I love the structure of rules in life and especially love rules for writing. I spend many hours reading about the craft, the rules and how the writers whose work I love approach their writing.

My reading preferences reflect my love of writing. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the classic on the craft of writing, sits dog-eared and well-loved at the top of my stack of books I re-read when I need inspiration. The day the new AP Stylebook comes out is always reason for celebration for me. My new copy already has sticky notes clinging to the pages. And doesn't everyone still have their high school grade grammar book?

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the writing profession doesn't have formal accepted practices governed by some appointed board like the accounting profession does. Sure we have our rule books and style guides, but these vary by profession, publication styles and audience. Given these often confusing rules (or lack of them), it's easy to get sloppy in writing and editing choosing to think "well I know that's right in one style book anyway.”

I look at writing, editing and proofing as a puzzle. Every piece should fit together perfectly at the end, but different approaches can get to the same final product. It’s the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation that underpin the structure writers tend to adhere to regardless of their approach.

But, do they? Sometimes rules should be broken. Whether it's because of voice, audience, style or maybe just a little rebellion, maybe some writing rules have more flexibility than others. In today's world, the spoken word and the written word are more closely related than ever. There seems to be an increasingly acceptable level of fudging on writing rules as we work toward that goal of clarity and flow.

After many years of reading, writing, editing and proofing, I've come up with my short list of five rules that are gospel to keep and four rules that are OK to ignore sometimes.

The gospel rules (which in reality translate into my pet peeve editing issues)

1 - “She is going with Mary and I” will never be correct. Ever. For any reason.

2 - There is no acceptable use for a misplaced modifier or a dangling participle. They are insidious gremlins that often go unnoticed in writing because our ears are so accustomed to hearing them spoken. "Opening the door, it was time for everyone to enter." In the spoken word you know exactly what the speaker means. In writing, it is fingers on a chalkboard.

3 - Spelling is spelling. Period. Creativity isn’t an option in spelling.

4 - Apostrophes indicate possessive not plurals. Merry Christmas from the Smith’s. The Smith’s what?

5 – The serial comma isn’t necessary, but I’m not going to touch that word nerd debate in mixed company. This provokes as much controversy among writers and editors as the preference of vinegar versus mustard sauces does among BBQ aficionados. Just decide how to use a comma in a series, stick to it and make sure your writers do the same.

Then there are some rules writers can fudge on a bit. We all have our own. I’ve already used a few in this piece. My personal guide for breaking a writing rule is to do it consistently, deliberately and with thought.

1 - Sometimes it's OK to end a sentence with a preposition. The old example of something “up with which I will not put" is awkward construction, no doubt. In today's world that kind of writing sounds stilted and overly formal. Know your audience and use a preposition at the end of a sentence if it’s something you can live with.

2 - Sentence fragments and single word sentences can sometimes help make a point. Admittedly this loosening of a rule is partly due to today's texting society, but sometimes a fragment can add emphasis in more informal writing. Right?

3 - Starting a sentence with a conjunction can improve a transition, comparison or bridge between ideas. But know when to use this construction appropriately and use it sparingly.

4 – The rule of split infinitives may just be outdated. This rule has been around since the dawn of time…or at least the dawn of Latin. As long as the meaning is clear, it's OK to occasionally split the infinitive.

So now, I’m off for some light reading in the Elements of Style. This newest edition has lovely whimsical illustrations by the artist Maira Kalman. Her cover art of a self-satisfied basset hound caught my eye when I first saw the book at Litchfield Books. And while I do love the art, the juicy rules and vibrant writing commentary keep me turning (and scribbling on) the pages.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Celebrating my one year "bike-iversary"

Today is the one-year the "bike-iversary" of the day I wedged my new yellow bike into the back seat of my convertible and drove it home to Columbia from the Greenville bike shop.
 
It was an impulse buy for sure. I’d always liked a bike as much as the next gal when I was growing up. A bike was just part of the southern suburban experience. Getting new bikes was kind of a rite of passage from tricycles to training wheels to first real bikes to cool teenager bikes to grown up practical bikes.

I have a great photo of me and my grandfather as I sat on my first tricycle. As a tween, I loved my pink bike with the banana seat and sissy bar. The last bike I owned was stolen from my backyard in Washington more than 25 years ago. Since then, it wasn’t I disliked biking…it just never came up as a mode or transportation or form of exercise.

A year ago, I had the random chance to rent a bike one hot, sunny Friday afternoon in Greenville. I stopped into the shop I’d passed several times on Main Street near the park. I loved the name, Pedal Chic, and was drawn to the fun stuff for women riders that always hung in the windows. I had a couple of hours to kill and had heard the nearby Swamp Rabbit Trail was a flat, easy ride for an amateur cyclist.

The helpful staff in the bike shop fitted me for a bike, recommended I use a helmet and sent me on my way with the warning the shop closed in 90 minutes so I needed to return the bike by then. I knew I’d lose interest long before that, so I pedaled off on the sidewalk to find the trail about three blocks away.

I knew it was about nine miles from downtown Greenville to Travelers Rest on this trail built on an abandoned rail bed. I knew the trail passed Furman University about half way. I knew there was no way I’d make it the five miles to Furman, much less the nine to Travelers Rest. My goal was to ride a few miles to get in a little exercise for the day and return the bike well before the shop closed.

I hopped on the trail right by the river in downtown Greenville. Within a couple of minutes it was clear that my expectations of this trail and this experience were way off.

The physical part of the ride wasn’t as taxing as I had anticipated. I was in better condition to ride a bike than I’d given myself credit for. The scenery along the trail wasn’t just rows of abandoned industrial buildings as I’d expected. In just the first couple of miles, I passed everything from a jogging trail and public art to an urban garden and a soccer complex. Many of the crossings at the major roadways had clever safety signs. The Swamp Rabbit Grocery offered local produce, fresh baked goods and the best fruit popsicles ever.

Before I knew it 30 minutes had passed, and I was already at Furman. Wow – I can ride five miles in 30 minutes, I thought?  I’d lost track of time enjoying the quiet of the trail coupled with the cacophony of roller skate wheels, dog tags jangling, kids chatting and teens skateboarding. All of this activity was in perfect harmony with the changing scenery on this 10-foot-wide asphalt trail.

I rode another mile or so past Furman and then turned around so I’d make sure to return the bike by its witching hour. The next day I was back at the shop wanting to rent the same bike so I could ride all the way to Travelers Rest. This time I felt like I knew what I was doing. I took their recommendation of riding with a helmet. I strapped on two bottles of water. I traveled on the street to the trail head after learning sidewalk riding was prohibited. I was already a pro.

The ride to Travelers Rest took almost an hour and a half, and I was thrilled with that pace. I rode at a steady speed just enjoying the changing landscape and the diversity of people who were doing the same.

I was hot but not at all tired by the time I got to Travelers Rest. I’d been there for work a few times so I knew the good lunch spots. Once I got seated at the Whistle Stop CafĂ© I realized how much the trail traffic contributes to commerce in this town of around 5,000 people. Just about everyone in the place was wearing some sort of bike gear, and the racks along the main street were full.

I leisurely pedaled back to Greenville mulling over the idea of maybe it’s time to think about getting a bike at some point. Since the last bike I owned had no gears and a basket on the front, I knew absolutely nothing about the technology or the capability of today’s bikes.

When I arrived back at Pedal Chic to return my bike, a shiny yellow bike in the store window caught my eye. A little too flashy and impractical for me, I thought. I’m just looking for the basics.

I asked to young woman in the shop to tell me about the bike I’d ridden. What made it fit me so well? Why was it so comfortable when bikes I’d ridden in the past just made my back ache? She suggested I try out a couple of other similar bikes if I was interested in buying one at some point….no sales pitch, nothing pushy … just an offer to  provide some insight into what I might want.

I asked her about the yellow one. She told me about the brand and its specific attributes. But the part that caught my attention was the fact that the frame was a bit smaller than a typical woman’s bike. I had to try it out.

So off I went trying out that one and several others on the hills of downtown Greenville. I practiced using the various types of gears on the different styles. I adjusted the seat height. I felt the comfort of the saddle cushion. But I kept coming back to the yellow one.

June 13, 2015
I knew it wasn’t smart to invest in a bike just because I liked the color….like it’s not smart to buy the cute high heels just because you like the color. Both have to fit in order to be used.

I talked more with the young woman who had helped me earlier. I talked with the owner of the shop. Still no hard sell but I was quickly seeing that I was meant to buy that yellow bike. Within an hour we had wedged the bike into the back seat of my convertible, and I was on my way home.

I haven’t looked back (except maybe occasionally to glance through my rear view window at my bike on its rack on the back of my car).

A year later, I’ve put close to 1,000 miles on the yellow bike…and that’s mostly just around town fairly leisurely riding. When I go out of town in my car, the bike goes with me if there’s any chance I might be able to get in a ride. We’ve to the beach more times than I can count. We've ridden the Colonial Parkway in Virginia from Williamsburg to Jamestown and climbed a mountain in North Carolina.
The bike has inspired me to rent one in cities I visit. It’s been a fun way to see a city from a new perspective. I’ve ridden the 20-mile perimeter of the downtown lake in Austin, discovered parts of Detroit I never would have seen, explored the shores of Lake Michigan, biked along the Chattahoochee River path in Columbus, GA, sped down Capitol Hill in Washington and pedaled the path all the way around Central Park in NYC.

In the past year I’ve learned a few things from my biking experiences:
·       Carry a little cash on every ride – you never know when you need to buy a gelato or something.
·       Don’t ride on the sidewalk – it’s illegal.
·       Always wear a helmet even if it’s really goofy looking. All it takes is watching one person crash to understand how easily you can get hurt.
·       Get used to drivers honking and yelling at you to get off the road.
·       Respect traffic laws even when it’s easier just to run the red light if no one is coming (well maybe fudge a little at a corner with a light that’s tripped only when a car pulls up).
·       Finding bike racks in Columbia isn’t always easy but most of the ones downtown and in 5 Points are great.
·       Invest in a strong lock and use it.
·       Keep the chain clean and lubed. I’ve learned to do that myself.
·       Check the tire pressure before every ride.
·       Do the hard uphill climbs first.
·       Invest in a rear view mirror, especially for riding neighborhoods without specified bike lanes.
Now a year later, I can do that 18-mile trip on the Swamp Rabbit Trail in well under two hours. I’ve found a safe route from my house to the Columbia Riverwalk path completely avoiding major thoroughfares. I’ve incorporated a 15-mile bike ride into my Saturday morning yoga class/Soda City Market/lunch routine. I can snap the bike on and off my car rack in two minutes flat. I’ve learned staying off the grid for a couple of hours is actually possible on a bike.

So thanks yellow bike for a wonderful year. It’s been a great ride! Here’s to many more to come.