Roman Griffen didn’t plan to be a writer — he was just looking for a way to express himself. His friends had him pegged as a guy who liked to kid around and goof off, so when he raised serious thoughts and ideas — about love versus being in love, God versus science — “they would laugh,” he says. “No one took me seriously.”
His solution was to commit his thoughts to paper. He started writing essays, and then six or seven years ago started an interactive forum where he could post his work and invite people to comment on it. When his audience reached 50,000, he decided to send out his work by E-mail instead.
Griffen teaches “Overcoming the Fear of Writing,” a Mercer County Community College course, beginning on Tuesday, September 12, at 6:30 p.m. at the school’s West Windsor campus. Cost: $72. To register, call 609-570-3311.
Although Griffen has written short stories, he hit his stride with the essay, in particular the ones he wrote on the seven deadly sins, which he has now compiled into a book: “Proven Innocent: The Defense of the Seven Deadly Sins.” Using the format of a courtroom drama, he defends the sins, which include lust, pride, sloth, and envy. He claims that these “sins” are an integral part of human development: “Without them, we wouldn’t evolve.”
Two publishers liked his book — for the most part. But both wanted to take out the testimony of certain witnesses in the wrath chapter, that’s where he puts a priest on the witness stand and makes a case in favor of anger. He uses the “clean hands” doctrine of law, in which you cannot accuse someone of a crime if you are guilty of the same crime yourself. “God killed people freely in the Old Testament,” says the prosecutor, “so how could wrath be a sin when the God of this institution has unclean hands?”
Griffen took the refusal to publish the book as an infringement of his freedom of speech: “In my eyes, it was a form of censorship,” he says. But free speech will out in this case thanks to some of his friends. They raised money for him to form his own publishing company, and get his book into print.
Just as others had helped him out when he needed it, Griffen realized that he could help out others by freeing them to write.
He got the idea from a study he read about the top 100 corporate employers. The study reported that more than one third of them felt that their employees needed help with their writing. He knew someone who taught floral design for MCCC, so he contacted the school about teaching writing, and has been doing so for three years.
It really bothers Griffin that people are afraid to write, but when he audited writing classes at different colleges to see how it is taught, he began to understand where the fear comes from.
“For their whole lives people have been telling them what they were doing wrong,” says Griffen of the writing students he observed, “and everybody fears failure.” So Griffen never uses a red pen, and he tries to suggest alternative approaches rather than criticizing. “There are always 10 different ways to write something,” he says.
Not only were many of the teachers he has observed quick to correct errors, but they also promoted a “right way” to do things. They like to tout rules, stating, for example, that the passive voice should never be used. But, says Griffen, in legal documents where an attorney is trying to shift blame away, the passive voice is necessary and effective.
Griffen teaches his students and basics of grammar, and urges them to read as much as possible. He also shares tips he has gleaned in the course of his own writing experience.
Don’t sweat the first draft. A first draft is just that — a draft. People who expect to write something cold are putting too much pressure on themselves. “Worry about esthetics and punctuation later,” advises Griffen.
Be true to your voice. If you fiddle with your own voice too much, it’s not yours anymore. Griffen has been to lectures where the speaker urges writers to finish the first draft, then have a thesaurus handy to choose the proper words. People like to call this approach “polishing your writing,” but Griffen doesn’t see it that way.
“What I agree with is total feeling and your own voice,” he says. “If your voice is not going to use the word ‘licentious,’ then don’t use it.”
If you borrow other people’s tools, your own voice and originality is lost. Griffen is in favor of improving vocabulary — he always has a dictionary handy while he reads and writes down definitions at the end of each chapter — but he doesn’t use a word in his own writing until it comes out naturally.
Root out redundancy. Redundant phrases and unnecessary words make writing clunky. Get rid of phrases like “I’ll be there at 12 noon,” and you’ll be surprised how much clearer your writing gets.
Cultivate brevity. Shorter, stronger sentences capture your reader. Don’t make them so short and choppy that your writing reads like shopping list, but remember that both of the following are viable sentences: “Rocks explode.” and “I am.”
Calm down, make sure you have a subject and a verb. “Don’t write big long sentences to impress people,” says Griffen. Don’t aim your writing over anyone’s head. “Once you develop a good vocabulary, if don’t want to insult the reader, don’t use all 10-cent words.”
Griffen, a native of Trenton, supports himself primarily by working as a security consultant for night clubs, working in a different club each night of the week. He hires new security, gets things running properly, and then moves on to the next club. He also teaches writing at Bucks County Community College.
Griffen says that one of his acquaintances, a professor at Princeton calls him “the minister of thought provocation.” He plays this role both in his writing and his teaching, and he observes, “As long as I can evoke some passion in you, my job is done.”