Saturday, August 30, 2014

Follow Writing Advice--Except When You Shouldn't

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 yourself. 


From the article:

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?


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.