It's frustrating. I know I misuse pronouns and prepositions, but I can't tell you how, or how I need to fix them.
So, in January, I gave my ungraded papers to a native French French professor at Lafayette and asked he could help articulate my errors.
Last week, we sat in his office and read my paper on the modern French economy that was my take-home final exam. He did line edits and we talked about the words. 90 minutes of French grammar. I loved it.
As I sat there, most of the advice felt very familiar, so I thought I'd share it with you. It's the same "stuff" we deal with as writers...
- He very apologetically told me my errors stemmed from French I. I have forgotten key bits of my foundation, taught twenty years ago. A language has a clearly-defined form, and often, at the time we learned it, we were not interested. When we realize we have ideas to express, we have to revisit those rules. We like to believe that grammar doesn't matter, that a writer has poetic license, that we'll write in our speaking voice. To master the craft, we must know our basic grammar. Without doubt or hesitation.
- He asked me if I was interested in economics. The answer was a resounding 'no.' (And I cringed with memories of last semester's economics class.) I was writing about something that challenged me. As he pointed out, while he could decipher all my ideas and they were good ideas, he talked about the importance of knowing the language specific to the areas I wanted to talk about, the fields I might look to for a career. Then, I could learn the vocabulary that is unique to that field. English is the same. As writers, we have to learn a plethora of vocabulary for our stories. The occupations of our characters must ring true. So we need to learn their vocabulary.
- He suggested reading written material that I would like to emulate. If I want to be a journalist in France, I have to read the newspaper (which, unlike here, they do not write articles in the past tense. They write in the historical past tense, a tense I avoid). If I want to be a poet, I should read Beaudelaire. Doing this would help me develop the proper vocabulary mentioned in the previous item AND develop my French syntax and style. Writers constantly are reminded to read the authors they like and to read widely in the genre they write.
- He reminded me not to make my life difficult. When I'm reading those things I'm interested in, I need to note, either mentally or in a notebook, the words and phrases that I like, that sound French, that would improve my writing. Especially if I'm writing a reaction to a specific book, I should mimic the words and structure of that book, making the author's phrases my own. For the English writer, this would mean noting unusual words and how they are used. Similar to the earlier bit of advice, but this does include the idea of copying. Don't plagiarize, but use their words for practice, play with them.
- Use native speakers. A native speaker will engage you and appreciate your efforts to learn the language in ways a non-native speaker can't. Of course, if you're in France, this means you're submitting yourself to unknown levels of abuse. For the English writer, this means finding people who have a mastery in areas you know you lack. Learning something as personal as language involves hurt, our feelings get bruised. That's okay.
- Stop thinking in English, like an American. In the case of French, this means surrounding one's self with the language. Movies, music, books, news broadcasts, conversations... But for the writer, it means learning to think like an artist, which means surrounding one's self with similar things. As Jean-François put it: No matter how many drafts and edits you do, your thought process will always show.