(This column appeared on the fine mystery blog Working Stiffs October 29, 2007)
“Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.”
Playing by the rules. We’re conditioned to follow the righteous path, to stick with the proverbial straight and narrow. Yet how many times have you heard of the person who broke all the rules, got the agent through a flamboyant attempt, landed an unheard of deal for a book that no one had ever thought to write? Writing workshops, conferences, blogs and listserves counsel new writers to always, always follow the rules. So why is it, when we hear the success stories, the rule breakers are the ones with the clout?
Let me back up for a moment. Stephen King makes the excellent point that if you’re going to be a writer, you need to know the rules. The Writer’s Toolbox, he calls it, the fall back position for every writer. Vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure – all of these individual tools are essential to writing a good book. The trick is to know the rules well enough that when you break them, you’re doing it on purpose, for a specific effect.
So when you have your toolbox chock full of every imaginable instrument, and you’re the Yo-Yo Ma of the dangling participle, what then? How do you know when to break the rules? How do you know that it’s okay to take a chance?
This is a subject I’ve been dealing with for years. In college, I fancied myself a poet. I studied the masters, soaked up all the guidance my professors gave me. I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying for this idealized version of prose that I was being taught was the “right way” to write. I was surrounded by award-winning literati, ate, drank and slept Donne and Tennyson, could recite couplets from Shakespeare with ease. But something was missing. I kept writing these poems and stories, kept getting feedback that I wasn’t hitting the mark. I worked hard on my craft, searching for that elusive something that would gain glory and praise. After I submitted one particular story that I just knew was going to knock their socks off, the feedback was terse. “Reads too much like B-grade detective fiction.”
That week ended on a real high when my other professor, the young literati poet, the one with the flowing black hair and groovy pink and tortoise glasses, the bohemian whom I admired and attempted to emulate, pulled me aside. “You’re not going to get published,” she said. “The chance of this kind of work making it in the real world is limited. You should focus on your other studies.”
SLAP! The glory, the creativity, the late nights watching snowflakes drift to the ground and trying to describe them individually, gone. Like a stupid, impressionable kid. I listened. I stopped writing.
I still read. Depressed as only a thwarted writer can be, I secretly imbibed to excess on my favorite poets, wondered at their ability, knew that I’d never be at their level. Somewhere, deep down, I believed my favorite little bohemian was right. I wasn’t good enough. Damn it, I followed all the rules, and I just wasn’t good enough.
Later in the semester, desperate for work to submit so I wouldn’t fail the course, I branched away from what the teachers were selling. I happened across a book by a man I’d never heard of. College is the time of discovery, right? The book was “HOWL and Other Poems,” by Allen Ginsberg. It knocked my socks off. I didn’t understand it, deconstructed and looked for the hidden metaphor, the meaning behind the words. I still didn’t get it. Then I just read the poems. I let the words be what they were, not a symbolic journey through allegory, but naked, hysterical truth.
With Ginsberg’s irreverence flowing through my work, I finished my thesis. It garnered lukewarm praise. The tiny little bud of creativity I’d been nurturing went dormant.
I’m ashamed now to admit that after my dismal last semester in school, I did focus on my other studies. I went into politics, had a nice career, moved into marketing, had a nice career, lost my job, moved to a new state, was bored to tears. Started to read again, really read, the way I’d done in college. Reading to learn is much different that reading to entertain. And these new writers I discovered weren’t following the rules I knew.
I wrote the requisite manuscript that lives in a drawer back in 2004. I heard the voice of my professors on every page. The “not good enough” and “B-grade detective fiction” became a mantra. But I used them to drive me forward rather than allowing them to hold me back. I broke some of the rules they’d told me not to. In the end, the book wasn’t great, but I decided to send it out. It got a wad of rejection letters, one of which changed me yet again. “The writing is excellent, but there’s nothing here to differentiate it from other manuscripts we’re receiving.”
Well. We’re making progress, I think.
I chucked it all then. Threw out every single damn rule I’d been taught. Wrote the book I wanted to read. Wrote like the wind. That one got me an agent, but didn’t sell. Timing this time, not any fault of mine. Instead of pulling back, I did it again. That one sold.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’m changing the course of humanity with my work. But I’m writing for me. I’m writing that tone, that voice that so disturbed my professors in college. They called it B-grade detective fiction. I call it a thriller.
Stuart Woods told me once, “The only rules are those you create, page by page.” That one sentence was better writing advice than anything the professional teachers ever gave me.
So know the difference. When an agent asks for a submission on green paper with 2 inch margins and courier font, you sure as hell better listen to them. But when your heart and your soul are telling you to try something different, to break the mold, to throw caution to the wind, listen. Listen, and succeed.
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