Sunday, August 16, 2009

Miss Spelling

My spelling is wobbly. It's good spelling but it Wobbles and the letters get in the wrong places. Winnie the Pooh

I em dansing.

Ponies the past went past we.

Mama Pene Mama Eart Me After Dad

These were all in a notebook Fred writes and draws in sometimes, like a diary but without the usual sense of order a diary suggests - her pages are random, there is no indication of when each was written, though most of them were from the time of our holiday at Easter when we went to Silvers circus. The last one is a song, each syllable is accompanied by a musical note. I stumbled upon it looking for somewhere to scribble notes while she was on my computer.

In the book I found a map she had drawn with the title: I EM HAPPY. It is a map of school and she has labeled certain landmarks: CUBILAND, PLAYGRAND and CURPAK (it took me a while to realise that CURPAK, which points to a ladderish image, means carpark and while it strikes me as odd, as a grown up, that the carpark should be one of her major landmarks, I myself have a wash of odd and ambiguous nostalgia about the row of carparking spaces out the front of Mt Nelson Primary School, which is odd because I have few memories of being driven to or from school). It's testimony to how much she likes school, despite my lingering worries about the smallness of the school and the lack of facilities and opportunities compared to bigger, shinier schools.

The other day I did a talk at a lovely secondary school, and then workshops with year sevens. One of the young writers asked me 'why does a book need to be copyedited? Why should it matter if the spelling is correct as long as people can understand what's being written?' It matters because it does I suppose, but I can see her point. I am always interested in Fred's writing, I am fascinated by how unstable language can be, how stretchy it is, how unreliable the step from the spoken to the written - it seems every second word has a rule-breaker: a silent letter, or unexpected diapthong. There is pleasure that, in a way, Fred's language is still private, still held within the embrace of the family. There is pleasure in the intimacy involved in deciphering codes, an intimacy perhaps that I am betraying by sharing her writing here.

Sitting beside me on the table is a book Fred has made herself, roughly stapling together the pages, which do not quite line up. It's title is THE BIG BOOK OF SICRIS. The first page is filled with a floating mysterious question mark. The next says: "DO YOU NOw ThaT PReRNS CAN Die BeFoRe CHiLDReN?" This secret is obviously so big, and so silencing, that for some days now the rest of the pages have remained blank.

'Haa Haa Haa. I hav a plan.'

This is written on the blackboard in the hallways. I discovered it walking past, and I could hear Fred in the bedroom, alone in her room, speaking aloud. There is something sinister about mispellings too, something that threatens cohesion, sanity, the order of things. Language is a series of objects we arrange. If we carefully lined our shelves with broken things: eyeless ruptured dolls, teacups with a bite taken out fo them, worm-filled apples, we would probably seem quite mad. Encountering mispellings is like seeing headless ghosts or zombies, things that have created life from the leftovers, the animated dead.

'Ponies the past went past we.'

But there is a poetry to the mispelled too. It implies an independence from authority, a boundless creativity that goes right down to the basic building blocks of language. And when they come from children they contribute to this intuitive sense that children are closer to the source than we are, the rich, wild source where imagination and creativity spring from. It is obvious that to Fred, words are as malleable as playdough, and they can be pushed and moulded as necessary.

At the moment, Una is in the bath saying to Fred, who is pretending to be deaf: 'Why do you need to not hear?' The surprising cadence of their idiosyncratic syntax informs my writing and changes the way I make sentences. I feel sometimes that I am the zombie, or the vampire, feeding off their jangling, living, dansing words, the music of their mis/spellings and mis/speakings.


  1. Anonymous4:03 PM

    I love this post! Ruqi is at the same stage. I find that my husband wants to help her "fix" her spelling, whereas I rejoice in it, so excited to see her shaping words.

  2. Oh I love this. I can't wait for Lily to start writing. I still find spelling challenging. My brain can find no pattern in the inconsistent rules and has never been convinced that they really matter enough to retain any that I try to learn.

  3. We can relate so intimately to this post. Our 6yo Yumi's writing entertains and enlivens us to know end. The roughly stapled books are the best kind:)

  4. God, this gave me goosebumps. Her writing is like magic. Gorgeous post.

    I feel so disloyal and authoritarian when I have to correct my son's spelling or letter-writing. I can never figure out when I'm supposed to "correct" it, either... It's too much fun the way he does it.

  5. this is a gorgeous post!

  6. Oh Penni - such a rich time. And early language, at least, is a base for all kinds of language - so it follows that fertility would surround the crossing into print as well. What a great post, thank you.
    I am going to look for some early notes from my kids that I've squirrelled away later on.

  7. What a great post! I love the title of her book: "THE BIG BOOK OF SICRIS". I just finished reading MJ Hyland's Carry Me Down, in which the 11-year-old protagonist makes a book about lying called the Gol of Seil. Backwards!


  8. This is beautiful. My son is of the type that is incredibly reluctant to have a go if he isn't going to get it right, so I don't see much of this. It's wonderful that you are enjoying it so intensely as well.

  9. oh lovely.

    that's one thing i love about the middle ages, too. the same words spelled differently on the same page. sometimes it's grammatical inflections we've lost now, sometimes not. the familiar strangeness of the words, the way a word that looks like it belongs in another language suddenly makes sense when you speak it out loud.

    the Middle English spelling 'flour' for 'flower' always makes me smile.

    i can't spell either.

    and now i am employed to teach english to norwegian two year olds...

  10. Language is fascinating isn't it. One of the teens watched me edit down one of my partner's academic pieces last week and was marvelling at what I saw, the detail in what I could see. She couldn't see it and it was like a secret act she was witnessing.
    I too like listening to the children natter. They're older, much older, than yours but it's still styled by their age and peers and influences.

  11. thaliak1:23 PM

    Loved your post Penni!
    For years my daughter thought that Valentines Day was:
    'Lovingtimes Day'.
    And I was very sad when she recently worked out the mistake.