We don’t need help in the Oh-My-God-I-Suck Department

In fifth grade, I attended the all-girls, private Catholic school I’d been in since kindergarten, with kids who had last names like Demoulas and Sterling (look them up). Sister Catherine, our esteemed leader, hated us all. But she disliked me less – or appeared to anyway – because I grasped English. I could diagram the fuck out of a sentence.

This was cool since the girls in my class were elitist snobs who knew I didn’t come from money. Having a somewhat friendly face around (even a nun) helps get you through the day, ya know?

In sixth grade, when my parents got divorced, I was enrolled in public school. I thought: HELLS, YEAH! Normal kids like me who will have ordinary, non-billionaire last names, also like me. (They were and they did.)

now_hiringBut those kids also figured I was just some snot who got tired of being surrounded by the same sex while her hormones went into overdrive. I must have ditched my rich pals in favor of a co-ed school so I could look down on the girls and steal the boys away, right? Seriously, in sixth grade, this shit is very real.

Anyway, making new friends in junior high sucks donkey balls. So I tried to suck up to Mrs. B, my new English teacher, hoping to spark a smile when she recognized my aptitude. It worked before …

Me: “Mrs. B, I looked at the next chapter last night and I saw we were going to be diagramming sentences. Can I help with that?” (I still smile and tear up when I see a proper diagram. Yes, I am that much of a geek.)

Mrs. B: “Becky, we’re not going to do diagrams. We’re skipping ahead.”

Me (crestfallen): “Why?”

Mrs.B: “Because it’s too complicated. Besides, no one needs to know how to diagram a sentence.”

We could spend the rest of this millennium talking about what that conversation means in the grand scheme of public education. Instead, stay with me for a sec.

I was bummed I wouldn’t have an opportunity to stand out in English. I had zero friends and having the teacher as an ally couldn’t hurt. (Desperate times call for desperate measures.) I was bummed I wouldn’t be able to do something I knew how to do well. When you go to a new school, you search for familiar shit anywhere you can find it.

BUT thirty years later, let me tell you, Mrs. B was right.

You don’t need to know how to diagram a sentence.

You also don’t need to know the definition of gerund, third-person omniscient, or denouement. I mean, if it’s your thing, if it turns you on to understand it all, I totally get it. I’m with you, actually. But the rest of the universe – writers and non-writers (the only two categories) – do not need to know this crap.

If you want to write, and an editor says your work bites because you change point of view or tenses too often, tell them to screw.

If you pour your heart and soul into something and an editor says, “You’re ruining your work with too many gerunds,” you could reply, “Pulling your head out of your ass might be fun.” (That might be the longest sentence I’ve ever penned. I’m blaming the fever. Plus, it’s funny.)

Generally speaking, writers are riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, but are compelled to write anyway. We can’t help it. We’re almost always desperate for validation, tired, overwhelmed and frustrated. We spend far too much time wondering if we’re talentless hacks wasting everyone’s time – including our own. We cry and hope, wait and pray.

We do not need help in the oh-my-God-I-suck department.

But more importantly, an editor succeeds when the writer he works with succeeds. So if an editor does not raise you up, stir your confidence, show you how to improve without crushing your spirit, walk away. (My policy for everything,by the way.)

For clarity, an editor should be firm. A good editor will even make you uncomfortable. Parting with precious words is difficult for every writer. But an editor should never make you feel like giving up. That’s just plain wrong.

So, no, you don’t need to know how to diagram a sentence à la sixth grade English. Leave the technical bullshit for the people who like technical bullshit. (Waves hand.) Meantime, just write.

• • •

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21 replies
  1. Jill Cooper
    Jill Cooper says:

    You lost me at ‘You don’t need to know how to diagram a sentence.’ CRY!!!! It was my favorite part of English class!

    Seriously, good advice. And it’s true. I don’t need anyone else to tell me I suck. I do that to myself all day long.

    I suck. Oh wait…

  2. sherpeace
    sherpeace says:

    I must be a couple generations ahead of you! I actually learned to diagram sentences in public school. As a teacher, I used the basic diagram to teach English Learners though I can’t say if it helped.
    Anyway, I am here to ask HOW one goes about finding an editor. I have no idea and I think it is making me drag my feet on this final revision. Also, I am hoping to find an editor who knows the business well enough that s/he might suggest an agent who likes my genre (if I can ever figure out what genre it is!).
    Thank you for any advice you can offer.
    P.S. Will putting my new address here change where I get my e-mails? I am in the process of closing my old e-mail address.

  3. Bethanne
    Bethanne says:

    My son brought home sentences to diagram. I had completely forgotten about them… and my older kid, the girl, didn’t have to do them. Public vs. Private education…but that a post all on its own. And totally, I don’t diagram my sentences. Labeling all that stuff, participles and gerunds and whatnot, was not my forte. I told him he was on his own…and good luck!

    • Rebecca T. Dickson
      Rebecca T. Dickson says:

      See? This is the point exactly. Whether or not you know how to diagram a sentence has zero bearing on your ability to write. You want to write, then do it. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  4. Lady Quixote
    Lady Quixote says:

    I hope you’re feeling better, Rebecca. You write amazingly well when you’re feverish, though. 😉

    This post of yours really struck a nerve with me, on so many levels. I grew up with a mother who believed it was her God-given duty to make me a better person, by constantly finding fault with me and picking me apart over every little thing. She didn’t stop her soul-annihilating tactics, even after I was grown and gone. I will soon be (eek!) 60, and 2 years ago my mommy dearest sent me a 62 page letter, in which she detailed every thing that was ever wrong about me in my entire life. I didn’t read that letter, although I’ve read others like it. (Her previous record was 50 pages long, sent when I was 30, and every sentence but *one* was a hateful put down.) But I later found out that my momster had sent copies of her 62 page hate-my-eldest-daughter letter to my aunt and my siblings. According to those who bothered to read it, her biggest complaint was that I have been ignoring her. Gee, I wonder why.

    At this point, you are probably wondering “What the Hell??” It took me a lot of expensive therapy to finally figure out that this isn’t about me, it’s about her. Can you say “Personality Disordered?” There really ought to be a law against some people having kids, let me tell you. I have spent most of my adult life trying to undo her years of brainwashing, and for at least 10 years now I have (mostly) stopped thinking OH MY GOD I SUCK… at EVERYTHING.

    Thankfully, very few people have experienced this level of ongoing emotional abuse, which means that most people have zero comprehension of what this kind of treatment would do to their developing psyche. (So far, I have never slapped anyone for telling me to “just get over it, it was a long time ago.” I believe I deserve a medal for my self-control.) But, years of abuse aside, I have observed that it doesn’t take a lot to put the average person down, and make even a “normal” individual feel small and bad.

    Nothing, in my opinion, hurts worse than Not Liking Yourself.

    Words are incredibly POWERFUL. As the old Proverb says, “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue.” We can KILL with our words – or we can speak words that HEAL.

    Your funny, quirky, brilliant blog is chock full of healing, life-giving words. And that’s why I’m your fan, not just a follower. You are probably about the same age as my adult children, but you are wise far beyond your years.

    YOU ROCK, Rebecca T. Dickson. I wish you had been around to edit my novel that was published 13 years ago. If I ever get my memoir/autobiographical novel written, I want you to be my editor.

    Lady Q

    • Jill Cooper
      Jill Cooper says:

      I feel for you. My mom is like that too. I had a 4 year hiatus where I didn’t speak to her. And she would email me every once in awhile to tell me how horrible I was, what a bad sister I was, and one day she hoped to see me so she could tell me in person.

      I stopped reading them all together and actually just blocked her. Sometimes you just have to cut the toxic people out of your life, no matter who they are.

  5. Lady Quixote
    Lady Quixote says:

    PS: I firmly believe that most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can with what they have. This includes verbal abusers like my “momster.” I pity her, I don’t hate her. She had a very bad head injury when she was a kid and was never the same again, according to her late mother, my grammie.

    People can hurt us, even though they may sincerely believe they are helping. Parents… teachers… bosses… editors… and all those “just get over it already” people I’ve never slapped. A person can mean well, even while their words are cutting us to the core. I decided a long time ago that it’s not up to me to judge whether someone is hurting me on purpose, but it is up to me to maintain safe boundaries. As you said, if someone is crushing your spirit, “walk away.” Because if we don’t, anyone who makes us feel like we suck at everything, will eventually destroy us, or – even worse – turn us into one of them!

      • Lady Quixote
        Lady Quixote says:

        Yes, Rebecca, that is what my next book is about: hope, healing, and compassion for all. My working title is “Healing From Broken.” I’m still in the early stage, only up to chapter 6. But now, in light of some new things that I’ve learned within the past few months, I’m thinking seriously about throwing those chapters away and starting over.

        My teenage granddaughter is having a baby. He’s due today, and if he hasn’t arrived by next Thursday, her doctor plans to induce her labor. She is going to keep her baby. So, I am about to be a great-grandmother. Wow! Back in August, when I learned that my granddaughter was pregnant, I also was told some other things, heartbreaking things, which forced me to realize that some of the insanity I grew up with, was unwittingly passed down to my 3 adult children, and they in turn have passed the dysfunction down to their children, despite all their loving good intentions to do better as parents than I did — even as I tried my best to do much better than my parents did, and yet I fell far short of being the ideal mother.

        Six months ago when I learned these things, I stopped writing my book and went on what I call a “madness marathon,” meaning that I have been searching and reading everything I can get my hands on that might provide some answers on how to stop this generational “curse” in my family. I actually maxed out my credit card twice since last September just from buying so many books.

        So far, the best book I’ve read on the topic is: The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment, by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman. It’s written by therapists, for therapists, and it’s priced accordingly. However, it is easy for the average lay person to comprehend, and more that worth its price. That book, more than any other of the literally dozens I’ve read, has helped me to understand my family of origin, and my parents’ families of origin, and it has also helped me to fearlessly face and understand myself.

        Most of all, the Pressmans’ book has given me a much greater compassion for people like my mother, than I would have ever thought possible. She’s broken; I really, truly get that, now. This does not mean that I will allow her to abuse me, but it does allow me to let go of most of my hurt and anger.

        Another terrific book is: Mistakes Were Made (but Not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. That one is written by two brilliant Social Psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Their book explains just about everything and everyone. I wish it were required reading before anyone can get a diploma, a job, a driver’s license, get married, have children, or run for political office. 🙂

        Rebecca, I’m so sorry that your parents are like mine. What an awesome overcomer you are. And Jill Cooper, my heart goes out to you, too. I’m sending Big Hugs to you both over the internet Right Now: XOXOXOXOXO (And that’s for anyone else who reads this, and relates.)

        Lady Q.

  6. Renee
    Renee says:

    In tenth grade, we had a writing assignment and this is before I started to write. I wrote a story about an alternative universe. My teacher wrote in my notes, unrealistic you have no writing skills.

    Senior year, I started to write and fell madly in love with words. My very first poem I ever wrote won a contest.

    Two years later, I was in my sophomore year at Penn State when I got word that another poem I wrote was being put in a magazine.

    No matter how many times I submitted the English teacher which I know call her, Dragon Lady (my gift to future generations)or even ball and chain. Her words still were with me.

    One day working at Sears, I spot, the dragon lady, I had just shown my boss my piece of work. I grabbed the magazine and chased her down, I said to her, “Do you remember me?”
    She nodded.
    “You told me I had no creative ability.” I handed her the college magazine, “Apparently you where wrong.”

    I walked away feeling victorious.


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