Damon Young: A letter to that man who emailed me to correct my grammar

I’m better at that than you at everything you do.

So, we will come back to this sentence soon! But before we do, I want you and anyone reading this to realize how hard it was for me to type this. Writers love to talk about the difficulty and humility of the writing experience. Which is sometimes true, of course. But sometimes our desire to tell people how hard it is outweighs how hard it really is. Sometimes we just need hugs.

Part of the experience of humility is the performance of humility. We’re not supposed to recognize, at least publicly, how good we are at what we do. Other people may do it for us, but even then our response must be to refuse graciously. (“You’ve won 17 National Book Awards, how does that feel?” “Like a 5-year-old scribbling in the dark.”)

But while the nature of the performance suggests inauthenticity, this humility comes from a real place. I think I’m pretty good at what I do, of course. But I’m still amazed by writers who sometimes make me feel like what I’m doing is just typing. You can not do not be amazed if you are good at it, because you know what greatness looks like. And I’m not talking about ghosts like Baldwin and Morrison either, but contemporaries, and even friends of mine. I’m most stunned by writers, like Raven Leilani, Cole Arthur Riley, Doreen St. Felix, and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, who are so supernaturally gifted and so Young that me calling them my peers makes it sound like one of them is lying if you wish it were true. Like I was in an H&M fitting room trying to fit my 43 year old thigh into an extra skinny pant leg.

Anyway, I just wanted to give you some context as to why it’s been so hard for me to tell you, in front of everyone, that I’m better at this than you are at everything you do. . (And I’m not even that good!)

Now let me explain why I know I’m right about you.

In your email you stated that my use of the word “is not it” was a “really bad choice”, corrected my use of “themand asked me not to give the impression that I was “always in the street”.

If you were better than me at this, you would know, as I do, that grammar rules are mostly suggestions. Railings to help us corral and organize the clutter in our heads into something cohesive. And, to quote Jason Reynolds, what happens in this space is a form of chemistry.

“Once you realize magic isn’t for the magician, it’s for me and everyone else, it changes the way you connect with it. Once I realized I could do that, that I could learn new combinations, I could learn new spells with those 26 letters, I was good to go.

You would also know – if you were better at it than I am – that phrases are music. And that sentences and music are mathematics. Equations. Beats separated by pauses. Micro-bursts of energy coalesced, cut and shot to find balance. You would know that sometimes “isn’t” just fits in a way that doesn’t match “isn’t” or “isn’t”. Same with “them” instead of “those”. You would know that even the choice of “doesn’t” at the end of the above sentence instead of “doesn’t” was intentional, due to the repetitive rhythm of “doesn’t” existing immediately after “doesn’t”. not”. You would know that short sentences lead to shorter sentences, which hit in a way that longer ones sometimes can’t. As it just did. You would know that “isn’t” is not a signifier of being “always on the street”. You would know that “always on the street” doesn’t do what you think it did. You would know that writing something like that proves you are a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a tram or a Ferris wheel. But like the cigarette smoke inside.

You would also know – if you were better at it than I am – that phrases are music.

And you would have known, as I knew after reading your email, that writing to me this proves that I am better at it than you are at everything you do as well. Because if you were really good at something worth mentioning, you wouldn’t have had the time, the bandwidth, the audacity to write me that. Because you would have had the perspective when you are really good at something.

I now remember the time when I was 10 and watched a Pittsburgh Penguins game for about a minute while surfing the channels. I don’t know Jack in hockey. But after watching Mario Lemieux handle the puck for 15 seconds, I knew he was excellent. That’s all I needed to see. Because talent always speaks the same language. Skill still speaks the same language. Pretension too. Anti-Blackness too.

You are so easy to read, fam. It was fun to write. But I feel bad for you now. Because I wish you had better sentences.