Creative Anarchy: Are There Rules for Writing?

Anarchy-symbol.svgAlthough natural talent and great instincts aren’t likely to hold you back, writing fiction well requires learning, as does any art or, for that matter, virtually any other meaningful endeavor. It is essential to gain an understanding of grammar, to know the meanings of words and understand their fine distinctions, to have a grasp of tone, style, voice, diction, point of view, analogy, simile, the various approaches to form and structure, to understand what a plot is, how to use punctuation, how every choice you make can affect the story, and how the story can sometimes guide these choices.

But when people start spouting “rules,” chanting the popular mantra, “show, don’t tell,” or admonishing you to stay the hell out of secondary characters’ heads, it might be time to provide some serious slap therapy, or at least start humming and pressing your palms against your ears.

I’m not suggesting that everything works or that there are no wrong choices. There are shitloads of them. The little bastards are everywhere, lurking, just waiting to pounce, but they are a part of the process and you don’t avoid them by adhering to someone’s imaginary set of rules, rules that have far more to do with current fashion than art. Of course it’s much easier to teach a set of rules than to examine the ways in which particular techniques can shape and direct your work. And it’s easier to understand a concrete set of rules than to dig deeper into your own work or the work of others.

Take a course or two if you want to, join a group, read a few books on craft, but be wary of anyone who approaches art as though it was basic plumbing. Above all, read voraciously, attentively, and widely.

Read William Trevor to see how powerful the passive voice can be. Read Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion for his challenging but authoritative approach to the omniscient point of view. Read Nabokov’s Lolita for an example of a compelling unlikeable protagonist. Read my work, which will not only teach you everything you need to know to become a great writer; it will also enable you to lose twenty pounds in six days, give you tighter abs, and enlarge your penis or the gender-specific organ of your choice!

Read and reread Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Alice Munro, Jim Shepherd, Barry Hannah, Mary Gaitskill, John Fowles, William Gaddis, and Linda Eisenberg. Read them and other great writers for same reasons you read anything and then read them again to try to understand what they are doing and why their work is so compelling. You may not even notice when a skilled author employs techniques some would mindlessly renounce. If you do, consider the possibility that the fault is in your training rather than the work. And that’s kind of my point: the belief in a false set of rules can limit you both as a writer and as a reader.

executionIt’s not the tools, but how you use them that determines the success or failure of your work. Execution, as anyone who’s been subjected to one could tell you if they hadn’t been, is everything.

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