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

I’m better at this than you are at everything you do.

So, we’ll get back to that sentence soon! But before we do, I want you and everyone else reading this to realize how difficult it was for me to type that out. Writers love to talk about how hard and humbling the experience of writing is. Which is true sometimes, sure. But sometimes our desire to tell people how hard it is surpasses how hard it really is. Sometimes we just need hugs.

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

But while the nature of performance suggests inauthenticity, that humility comes from a real place. I think I’m good enough at what I do, sure. But I’m forever awed by the writers who sometimes make me feel like what I do is just typing. You can’t not be awestruck if you’re good at this, because you know what greatness looks like. And I ain’t talking about ghosts like Baldwin and Morrison either, but contemporaries, and even friends of mine. I’m most stunned by the writers, like Raven Leilani, Cole Arthur Riley, Doreen St. Félix and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, who are so preternaturally gifted and so young that my calling them peers feels like one of them lies you wish were true. Like I’m in a H&M fitting room trying to smuggle my 43-year-old thigh into an extra skinny pant leg.

Anyway, I just wanted to give you some context for why it was so hard for me to tell you, in front of everyone, that I’m better at this than you are at anything 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 declared that my use of the word “ain’t” was a “really poor choice,” corrected my use of “them,” and demanded that I don’t try to sound like I’m “still in the street.”

If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive. And, to quote Jason Reynolds, what happens within that space is a form of alchemy.

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

You would also know — if you were better at this than I am — that sentences are music. And that both sentences and music are math. Equations. Beats separated by pauses. Microbursts of energy clustered and cut and culled to find balance. You would know that sometimes “ain’t” just fits in a way that “isn’t” or “is not” does not. Same with “them” instead of “those.” You would know that even the choice of “does not” at the end of the above sentence instead of “doesn’t” was intentional, because of the repetitious rhythm of “does not” existing immediately after “is not.” You would know that short phrases lead to shorter sentences, which punch in a way that longer ones sometimes can’t. Like this just did. You would know that “ain’t” ain’t a signifier of being “still in the street.” You would know that “still in the street” ain’t do what you think it did. You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.

You would also know — if you were better at this than I am — that sentences are music.

And you would’ve known, as I knew after reading your email, that the act of writing that to me proved that I’m better at this than you are at anything you do, too. Because if you were actually good at something worth mentioning, you wouldn’t have had the time, the bandwidth, the audacity, to write that to me. Because you would’ve had the perspective when you’re actually good at something.

I’m reminded now of the time when 10-year-old me watched a minute or so of a Pittsburgh Penguins game while channel surfing. I don’t know jack about hockey. But after watching Mario Lemieux handle the puck for 15 seconds, I knew that he was great at it. That’s all I needed to see. Because talent always speaks the same language. Skill always speaks the same language. Pretension does too. Anti-Blackness does too.

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

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