Editor’s Note: Richard Mitchell (1929–2002), also known as “the underground grammarian,” was a champion of clarity in thought and communication. I recommend his books, especially Less Than Words Can Say, to writers who want to improve their craft. His wit I recommend to everyone.
As an example of the latter, here are the opening paragraphs of the inaugural issue of his newsletter:
The Underground Grammarian is an unauthorized journal devoted to the protection of the Mother Tongue at Glassboro State College. Our language can be written and even spoken correctly, even beautifully. We do not demand beauty, but bad English cannot be excused or tolerated in a college. The Underground Grammarian will expose and ridicule examples of jargon, faulty syntax, redundancy, needless neologism, and any other kind of outrage against English.
Clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education. We are neither peddlers nor politicians that we should prosper by that use of language which carries the least meaning. We cannot honorably accept the wages, confidence, or licensure of the citizens who employ us as we darken counsel by words without understanding. And so, to the whole college community, to students, to teachers, and to administrators of every degree, The Underground Grammarian gives
The inaugural issue ended with this:
ABOUT SUBSCRIPTIONS & OTHER THINGS
There are no subscriptions. We don’t lack money, and we may attack you in the next issue. No one is safe.
We will print no letters to the editor. We will give no space to opposing points of view. They are wrong. The Underground Grammarian is at war and will give the enemy nothing but battle.
Mitchell placed his written work, including four books and fifteen volumes of The Underground Grammarian (4–9 issues per volume), in the public domain. The entire corpus is available electronically at sourcetext.com.
The present essay, “Writing against Your Life,” is a transcript of a speech he delivered at a writers’ conference in 1986, and it retains the character of an extemporaneous presentation. The speech was later adapted as the title essay of Mitchell’s book The Gift of Fire. But I regard his original speech as better (albeit more difficult to read) than the adapted essay. It is reprinted in full below.
I have mixed feelings about sharing this essay because some of its humor is cynical—a quality I loathe and normally refuse to tolerate. But the positive value of the essay dwarfs its cynicism, so I am making an exception. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. —Craig Biddle
I was fascinated by the title of your conference, “Writing for Your Life.” It’s a remarkably ambiguous title, which allows for all sorts of interpretations. The first one that came to my mind was by analogy with the expression, “run for your life.” And I tried to imagine the circumstances under which one would say to another, “My God, write for your life!” I confess I haven’t yet fully imagined those circumstances, but I am working on it.
Then there was the possibility of “writing for life,” meaning something like a sentence, being sentenced to writing for life. This was especially congenial to me, because I will have to say it right out that I do not like writing. It’s worse than that—I hate writing. I love the telephone, I think Jane this morning was uninterruptible by telephone—I am so interruptible, that if I am in the middle of a sentence, and the girl from Omaha State calls to sell me something for Christmas, I love her. . . . I want her to be mine, forever.
I once gave a lecture at the college where I teach—a public lecture, I try not to do that because I don’t like those people—and I had not spoken in public on the campus for about five years—I had been busy with less important things, I guess—but I chose, as I always do, a title for my lecture long before I had any idea what was going to be in it, and the title was “Five Years of Solitary Confinement.” Because in effect I had spent those last five years writing, and writing is, to me, solitary confinement, very[,] very hateful, painful, and lonely.
But I didn’t think that was what you meant by writing for your life. I suppose what you meant—I don’t know who “you” is, actually, when I say this—was something positive, something favorable—writing for your life, in behalf of it, in favor of your life in some way, and so I had to reflect on that, and in reflecting on that it occurred to me, I don’t think of writing that way; I think of writing as being, if anything, against my life. And then it occurred to me that maybe that’s not so bad, and if I were to suggest writing to another human being—a very bad act, I think—but if I were to suggest it to another human being, I would suggest it because that human being needs something against his life, something to change it in some drastic way, by which I would mean, his life was not in good condition, and he had damn well better write, to destroy it. And it is with that in mind that I speak. . . .