Getting Rid of the Get
During my eleven years teaching seventh-grade English, the personal narrative essay was part of my state’s mandatory writing test. The prompts went something like this: Write about a time when you learned a new skill or Write about a time when something unexpected happened. Student essays could open almost like this: “One day I got home from school. My mom got mad. I was just getting inside when she got up off the couch. She got to me before I got to my room to get dressed for soccer practice.” My students’ shortcuts in Voice & Style, as the state curriculum calls syntax and word choice, weren’t this severe but severe enough for me to start encouraging them to think harder about what action or idea they wished to convey when relying over and over (as if an unconscious linguistic crutch) on get, getting, got, and gotten. Let’s strengthen our writer’s legs. Let’s walk on our own.
I don’t remember whether this light bulb finally flashed blindingly enough for me to turn exasperated from another batch of student essays to my computer and scour my own writing for such seeming aesthetic laziness. If not, I just came upon them during a weekend or evening revision session. It was humbling to discover that I hadn’t always practiced what I had been preaching to my twelve- and thirteen-year-old students. My reliance likewise on non-dialogue get-conjugations in my then (since published) four-year-old first-person point-of-view nonfiction book-length manuscript about my year as an unarmed juvenile jail guard in Chicago wasn’t as prolific as my students’, but what excuse did they have? Many of them wrote only when instructed to. I was the one endeavoring to forge a literary side-career, someone purporting to weigh his every sentence, every phrase, every word even, with the utmost artistic fear and trembling. Pretentious, I admit, but all those years of reading and then inscribing constructive criticism onto student manuscripts has ingrained me with a nagging dislike of get. If the writer’s mission is to be innovative, vivid, and exact, might “She stepped off the Blue Line at Logan Square” be more pleasing and precise than “She got off the Blue Line at Logan Square”? Could “The skies grew dark” be more evocative than “The skies got dark”? Do the latter constructions not move closer to waking the senses? Saying something familiar yet in a clearer way?