Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Second Floor File Room

Years ago, when I first worked for the police department in the Records section, sometimes I had to go to the second floor file room. This pad-locked room was located right next to the elevator and around the corner from the City Jail. During daytime hours the room was only mildly creepy. I worked the graveyard shift, however, which meant that when I visited the second floor file room, it was often 2 a.m. We rode the same elevator that people coming to and from the Jail used. The elevator, apart from sporting a prominent bullet-related dent in one metal door, was prone to breaking down and trapping its passengers, sometimes for hours. As you might imagine, all of us had times when we waited for the next elevator rather than ride with whomever was waiting. The file room itself, which probably started life as a huge utility closet, was lit by banks of flickering florescent lights hanging from the ceiling. Everything was concrete. One side of the room was filled with rows of old files, which looked just like this picture, and the other side held old homicide files in metal cabinets. Exposed pipes and locked electrical boxes decorated the walls. The room smelled of old paper and mildew.

As I was wading through a grammar book recently, I felt that I’d been sent to my own SFFR. Beyond the basics – verbs, nouns, where to put a period, etc. – I don’t venture into the depths of grammatical definitions, and I was an “A” student in English. It’s been so long since I opened some of those old mental files that sometimes I wonder if they're still there. For instance, the word “subjunctive” makes my eye twitch. Here’s a selection of scary English terms: gerund, participle, split infinitive, comma splice, misplaced modifier. (When I read Wikipedia’s definition of participle, I felt like I was reading Greek.) Have any of those terms led you to your own SFFR?

One of the quickest ways adult writers can become discouraged is through English Anxiety. Just the thought of going to the SFFR petrifies them. They’re not even sure they know where the elevator is anymore. The only thing that could make it worse would be if they actually had to ride in an elevator with a smelly criminal. Relax, people. So what if you don’t know what a gerund is. You can learn, or at least learn how to use it properly. I can’t name all the parts in my car’s engine, but I can drive my car. Especially when you’re writing your first or second draft, don’t make grammar worries your top focus. Get your story on paper and worry about the grammar stuff later. As long as you get it onto the page, you can fix it. I don’t know anyone who can edit a blank page.

Invest some time and energy into buying a good grammar guide, if you’re that concerned. Use online resources. Go find one of those grammarian types who sleeps with the most recent edition of The Chicago Manual of Style under her pillow and ask her for help. Grammar shouldn’t be scary.

Photo courtesy of Grzegorz Kozakiewicz at

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