Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Importance of the Passive Voice

Another Lesson from Sam Campbell

Sam with school children after a show.
If you grew up an Adventist kid in the 50s and 60s you probably know about Sam Campbell, the "Philosopher of the Forest".  Sam was a Christian naturalist who, during the 30s to the 50s made his living doing nature presentations and showing slides and films in schools all over North America.

His life was a child's dream. He and wife, Giny Campbell, spent the summers living on an island in the middle of a lake in the North Woods of Wisconsin. You had to paddle out to the island in a canoe named "Buddie".

Sam and one of his wild racoon buddies.
In the winter, Sam earned his living doing his lyceum shows and selling his books about life on the island with a collection of quirky animals with names like Inky, Nuisance, Sweet Sue, Loony Coon, Salt and Pepper. I've been privileged to work on a project that will preserve Sam's book in digital format so that they will always be available for future generations after print publishers have lost interest in Sam's work.

Sam is the guy that inspired me to become a writer. It took almost 40 years for me to do it, but I'm there. There was a call for volunteers to edit the scans of his books and clean them up to make eBooks.  Scanners don't always get it right and neither does Microsoft Word apparently.

Microsoft word subscribes to the fundamental principle of modern creative writing - "Always use active voice".  Avoid the passive voice at all costs say the writing teachers. When I clicked on the grammar checker on my MS Word copy of "A Tippy Canoe and Canada Too", it became instantly apparent that Microsoft word doesn't much like Sam Campbell's style of writing, flagging him repeatedly for using "passive voice".

I took writing courses in college and have kept up with the principles of good writing ever since.  But I knew, that in Sam's case, Microsoft Word's grammar Nazi was wrong. This sentence, for instance:

       Our adventure chest was being filled to the brim with golden nuggets of experience.

Microsoft Word's grammar Nazi complains that the sentence is in passive voice and suggests I change it.  I refuse because I think Sam meant to use the passive voice here.  Passive voice is absolutely what you would want to use if your adventure chest were being filled with golden nuggets of experience. You didn't fill the chest yourself. You allow it to be filled. There's a huge difference. In the passive voice version, you accept what God sends you and you receive it with gratitude.You do not grab salvation through your own efforts. You accept it and receive it as a gift from a Father who wants to give you more good things than you can believe.

One of the "golden nuggets" I received for my "adventure chest."
If you've ever been in the deep woods or paddled softly along a river far from civilization, you will understand. Too many modern paddlers roar up in their 4x4s to the exciting bits of the river, unload their indestructible composite canoes and paddles, strap on their helmets and "grab" whatever excitement they can get. Then they walk back to the truck, load up and run back to town for a brewski and to brag that they have "owned" that river.

And like those who only write in the active voice, they miss what Sam Campbell knew and what I have learned in receiving golden nuggets for my own adventure chest while paddling my own canoe. Sam and I know full well that you never own the river or anything in the wilderness. You receive from it what it offers you. Anything you have to "seize" from the wilderness is tarnished in the process and becomes less than it was had you simply let it alone. The modern active voice woodsmen miss the river otters, the fisher birds, the deer peering solemnly at you from the bank as you drift by. They never see the long and quiet stretches where angels voices seem to murmur in the trees and birds lay down a quiet choral backdrop against the chuckling of the water as it flows among the rocks.

To get from the woods what God intended for us to receive, we must enter the forest prepared to receive the gift. We must approach the forest in the passive voice, whether the grammar Nazis approve or no.