As a teacher of writing, I’ve offered much advice and have
said many things about writing. Some of
them are even on the following list, “Writing Advice No One
Needs Again, Ever,” composed by one of my former students [excerpt below].
(Note: I am NOT the “inspiration”
teacher!) And yet, I try to always add into the mix this piece of advice: The only rule in writing is there are no
rules. (I would like to take credit for this bit of wisdom, but I stole it from
one of my teachers.)
What this means to me is that there are lots of guidelines,
and plenty of writers before us have come up with general principles and
shortcuts and “best practices” that tend to make for a better book/story. But eventually, writers have to feel free to
break those rules as needed.
Of course, the corollary to breaking the rules is that then you
also have to find your way to creating the book/story/whatever that succeeds
despite ignoring these “best practices”; you have to “make it work” (to quote Tim
Gunn on my beloved “Project Runway”). Sometimes
that means you have to experiment and study and fail for years until you get it
right. Or it means you have to be a
genius or accidentally stumble into a moment of genius. Or it means others in the mainstream don’t
understand (or appreciate) what you’re doing. It requires immense confidence
yet also immense humility.
In the end, though, art is always about knowing the rules
and yet knowing how to bend them and when to utterly break them. Listen to your teacher, but also listen to
1. Write what you know. Imagine applying this
advice to other areas of life. “Where should I go on vacation?” Stick with what
you know, stay home. “Where should I study in college?” Study what you know,
that way it’ll be easy. “Who should I marry?” Pick someone whose personality is
just like yours. If it’s so obviously stupid in every other facet of life, why
would it work for writing?
I’m so pleased to see my story “Someone in Nebraska”
published in the always-fabulous Potomac Review. I wrote this story while in—guess!—Nebraska, last
year when I was enjoying my residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the
Arts*. And this rarely happens—believe me!—but this was a story that came
fast and furiously, actually after a conversation in a bar. (So you know it’s good!)
You have finally met someone—live and in person—who has seen
the white light at the end of the tunnel. She’s a bartender in a small town in
Nebraska who had a heart attack when she was forty. “They run in my family,”
she says, as if that might be an obvious thing to understand about her. She
knows everyone in the bar, everyone except you. You’re the stranger. You must
like being the stranger wherever you go. That’s why you go to so many different
“I was clinically dead for twenty-five minutes,” she tells
you. Others in the bar listen, but clearly they’ve heard the story, the
minute-by-minute. Only you don’t know, although you know the end: there she is,
standing in front of you, bringing you a Bud whenever you ask for one….
I’m sorry that it’s not online, but you can order a copy here,
on amazon. While my story is only five
pages long, there are lots of other delights in the journal—I especially
recommend Thad Rutkowski’s short-short, “Warts and All.”
deadline for the next residency period is September 1! You already know what
an inspiring place it is.
Travel is on my mind…I just returned from Nashville (more
about that later!) and I’m on my way to Iowa in 10 days. Perhaps that’s why I was so taken by this
report from a writing conference in Portugal.
Disquiet is the name of the conference, which was co-founded by Scott Laughlin, currently a Converse MFA fiction student.
On the South85 blog, participant Annie Liontas gives her
view of the fabulousness that is Portugal, that is stepping outside daily life,
that is, as resident writer Denis Johnson said, “Writ[ing] yourself naked, from
exile, in blood”:
“After working in isolation in Philadelphia for the past
year, I started to realize that I’ve been waiting to be disquieted for some
time. I was ready to be unsettled: I felt it in my bones, the restlessness, the
need to find others like me. Somehow I knew I’d have to travel 3,500 miles
before I could be reminded that there is but one nation, and that is the nation
“It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled, and never have I
traveled for writing. This summer I answered Disquiet’s call, which proclaims
that “stepping out of the routine of one’s daily life and into a vibrant, rich,
and new cultural space unsettles the imagination, loosens a writer’s reflexes.”….
quickly find yourself longing for a glass of wine….
DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.