It’s a little daunting to write a proper introduction here about Martha Brockenbrough. She is the founder of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, as well as National Grammar Day (which received quite a lot of press attention). Her new book, Things That Make Us [Sic], which just came out today, takes a sharp-eyed look at bad grammar in public spaces. People who die a little bit inside when they see a misspelled word or misplace apostrophe will find hope—and humor—here. We’d like to introduce Martha to our readers, and have her share a few of her favorite books about writing and grammar.
My husband said a few weeks back, “You know what I find really endearing about you? The way you leave stacks of books all over the house.”
Translation: You and your book heaps are sort of driving me nuts, but I am too nice to complain. I will take my revenge on you by playing another game of XBox.
My husband is absolutely right, of course. Things have gotten out of hand with me and the reading matter. My shelves are stuffed. The windowsills are probably a fire hazard. There’s hardly room under the bed for dust bunnies to breed, let alone breathe. The books are everywhere.
But in my defense, we live in a crooked house and there’s nothing like a stack of novels to help keep a door propped open.
I’m no librarian, but I’ve organized the stacks somewhat.
In the writing stack
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (illustrated by Maira Kalman)
This book will always be one of my favorites, because it was in reading it in eighth grade that I discovered the concept of a writing style. That’s when I started to hone mine, with varying results. “Juvenile!” said my high school English teacher (and honestly, he probably still does, which is why I am working on a novel for teenagers).
I really love the illustrated version by Maira Kalman. Her paintings add a certain moody whimsy to the experience. My own copy of this book is signed, which makes it a double treasure.
On Writing by Stephen King
Honestly, I haven’t read much Stephen King since high school. That was the last time I willingly subjected myself to a scary book. Ever since, life has been plenty scary on its own. But my dad gave me a copy of this he’d picked up at the airport, and I’ll never let it leave my collection. Neither of my parents was ever really thrilled about the idea of my becoming a writer. They would have felt much more certain I’d have a solvent future, free of alcoholism and suicide-by-oven, or whatever demons haunted authors in my parents’ nightmares. When my dad gave me the book, it felt like he was giving my dream his blessing. It’s the same thing the book does for writers. No matter what your style or shortcomings, you’ll find in this book an invitation to the table.
Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott
There are many gleaming gems in this book, but my favorite is the idea of getting just a postage-stamp-sized bit of work done every day. Most people can’t set aside everything to write. We have kids, outside jobs, volunteer commitments and sick hamsters, to name a few distractions. Lamott unlocks the secret to writing so simply. Just a little bit every day. Everyone has time for that, and if you want to be a writer, you’ll do your postage stamp today.
Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattisison
I met Darcy last year at a retreat, and she just dazzled me. This book is for people who have a draft of a novel done, and who want to make it better. She has developed a science for revisions, and for those of us who weren’t born knowing how to write a great novel, Darcy lays some helpful groundwork.
The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh
Bill is a copy editor at the Washington Post. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting a newspaper copy editor, well, you’re missing out. Copy editors know the issues of the day. They have no patience for sloppy, flabby writing. And they can tell you without hesitation that Jell-O has a capital J and a capital O, which is preceded by a hyphen (which itself is different from an en-dash and an em-dash). They know so much, and this book (along with Lapsing into a Comma) will help make the professional writer as possible.
Editor’s Note: Martha will give us some fiction suggestions later, right here on Shelf Talk. In the meantime, she will be reading from Things That Make Us [Sic] at the Secret Garden Bookshop on Thursday, October 16, at 7 p.m.