While I do provide some grammar instruction in my English 10 courses, Kris Spisak wrote the book on it. Literally. Her first book, Get a Grip on Your Grammar, was published in 2017, and it is a handy and clever reference book for those who want more information or would like to double-check commonly confused words and phrases. It’s excellent, and I often use it for grammar icebreakers in my classes.
Earlier this year, Kris published The Novel Editing Workbook (Feb. 2020), and this month, she is releasing her newest project. It’s such an exciting time for her, and I’m so happy to have Kris here for my November Coffee Chat. Fill up your mug, and join us as we talk about unusual jobs, grammar pet peeves, and claiming the title “writer” once and for all.
Me: I may have assumed you were a coffee drinker. Are you? If so, how do you take it?
Kris: I absolutely am. Coffee is my #5amwritersclub fuel. A natural vanilla creamer is my usual go-to.
Me: What is a job that you’ve had in the past that people might not know about? Any interesting stories from it you can share?
Kris: I’ve had way too many strange jobs, but it helps in the writer’s life, I suppose. I was a “security guard” in college. I worked the front desk of the kinesiology department building, ensuring no one unauthorized went into the labs where dissections took place—and, you know, making sure cadaver parts never left the building. That’s a bit strange when I look back on it, but it was a great place to catch up on my homework!
Me: Oh, wow! That was an interesting job! In your newest book, you mention that many people are afraid to claim the title “writer.” When did you first consider yourself a writer? Was there a defining moment when you realized this is what you were meant to do?
Kris: Why is it that so many people are afraid to call themselves a “writer”? If you write, you simply are one. No publication credits are required.
My ownership of the “writer” title came through my membership and participation with James River Writers, an amazing writing community that has bolstered my personal and professional life for the past fifteen plus years. I remember sitting in the audience at one of their events years ago and hearing someone make this point. Prior to that evening, I had said that I “liked to write” or that “I wanted to be a writer,” but something in the air that night shifted my perspective. I stopped “wanting to be a writer” and simply owned the fact that I was one. And I haven’t looked back since.
Me: What are some writing routines, quirks, or habits you have? What are some items you must have in your writing space?
Kris: As I mentioned in your first question, I try my best to make it to the #5amwritersclub on Twitter as frequently as I can. It used to be daily, and I’m working on getting back into that routine, though everything that is strange about 2020 has disrupted that regularity for me. Sneaking my writing time in first thing in the morning, when my house is quiet and my coffee is in hand, always improves the rest of my day. Plus, starting early in the morning when my coffee hasn’t yet kicked in lets me play a bit in my not-quite-awake, not-quite-dreaming state, where my creativity often flourishes.
What do I need in my writing space? Coffee just keeps coming up here, doesn’t it? And perhaps my cats. My family calls them my “gargoyles” since they’ve been known to perch on opposite sides of my desk while I work.
Me: What is your biggest grammatical pet peeve? Care to comment on “irregardless?”
Kris: “Irregardess” is simply not a word. I don’t care that they’ve added it to the dictionary. They’ve also added “literally” to the dictionary, meaning “figuratively,” as in the opposite of “literally.” There’s casual use, sure, but we all have our lines. “Irregardless” is absolutely past that line for me.
That being said, I’m not sure I have grammatical pet peeves, per se, anymore. There are so many details that writers and speakers just simply don’t seem to understand. An editor’s work is never done! But I’m of the school that we all need to support each other where we can. If people ask me for help, oh, I’m all in. But I’m never going to call out or correct someone’s mistake. That’s unnecessary.
Me: What is your favorite word?
Kris: My favorite word is “posh,” but not for the reason you might think. The meaning of “posh” is fine and all—and who wouldn’t want to own that one?—however, for me, it’s my favorite because it’s the first word I remember learning the etymology story for. I remember the story hitting me, feeling startled yet wanting to learn more. When history meets language meets sociology, I’m fascinated every single time. I might have been around ten years old. I never would have guessed that my life would be shaped upon such language stories, but here we are—and I love my work so much.
Me: What are some of the pitfalls of knowing the rules of proper grammar?
Kris: Wait, there are pitfalls? Just kidding. Well, you could argue that I pay attention to language far more than I need to. For example, in this question, you used the word “pitfalls,” which has its origin connected with literally falling into a pit. I’m suddenly happy that I live in a world where I don’t truly have to be concerned with “pit falls” of that nature, only the simpler kind that might be referenced in a question like this.
Knowing how to actually use a semicolon feels like a super-power sometimes, but knowing doesn’t mean we should criticize or judge others. That’s the biggest pitfall I see in the grammar conscious. We all need to try harder (at so many things!) but the world would be better without the grammatical anger that’s out there. I try to avoid that at all costs.
Me: What was the inspiration for your new book?
Kris: When my last book, The Novel Editing Workbook, came out, we had the idea about the next one in line. The original plan was going to be “The Memoir Editing Workbook.” Everything I focus on is about empowering our words and our storytelling, and this seemed to be the best next step. Yet as I created writing prompts in the spring of 2020, urging writers (whether they claimed the “writer” title or not) to write down their stories, because we were living through history, I was shocked by the response. People had so many tales that began pouring out of them—stories of 2020 but also stories of hard times in years past, both their own and their family’s.
Thus, my next project shifted, and The Family Story Workbook was conceived in its new form, designed for anyone who’s ever wanted to write their life story, anyone who’s wanted to connect with their family members in a new and profound way, or anyone who’s wanted to capture their family stories before they’re lost.
So many people want to write these stories, yet they never do. The Family Story Workbook is the tool to preserve these histories.
Me: What is a family story you have that you want to make sure is never forgotten?
Kris: I think I’ve been trying to write one of my family stories since elementary school but never really found the right way to tell it. I’ve played with it in poetry, in short stories, in first-person narrative nonfiction, and in novel form. Hopefully, I’ll have updates on my most recent attempts at it soon, where I’ve pulled my family’s Ukrainian World War II stories into fiction. Stories of bravery, heroics, and survival can take so many forms. These are the family stories that impacted me young and still ring out so powerfully for me. Some stories are too meaningful not to share, but more on that soon
For readers interested in English language news and trivia, my monthly newsletter is packed, including the most recent updates on my writing tips blog and language-focused podcast, “Words You Should Know.” You can sign up and learn more about my books (Get a Grip on Your Grammar, The Novel Editing Workbook, and now The Family Story Workbook) at Kris-Spisak.com. The Family Story Workbook will be released November 12, 2020, and is available for preorder here.
***Purchase your copy of I Love You More Than Coffee.