10 Rules about Writing
By Timmy Reed
When my teacher, Jane Delury, asked my thesis class to prepare this set of rules, I considered doing one that had a lot of little concrete, craft-y kind of guidelines that I feel are useful but also can often be broken to wonderful effect. Things like: Report – not everything needs to be a scene, or use your dialogue to show character not exposition, or don’t repeat adjectives within the same sentence. But these rules seem silly or obvious to me and, as I said earlier, they are not universally true. So I decided to stick with what I think of as “big picture” advice that I feel is worthwhile. Thank you to everyone who has ever taught me anything. And that’s all of you.
1) Know nothing. My former teacher, novelist Bret Lott, used to remind students to constantly repeat to themselves this mantra: “I know nothing” whenever they wanted be serious, honest, and compassionate about their writing. You should always want to be serious, honest, and compassionate about writing. If you are being funny, be seriously funny. If you are being fantastic, be fantastically honest. If you are being brutal, be brutally compassionate. Awe and humility regarding the strangeness of life and its players is the primary state of mind that a writer should embrace and cultivate. You know nothing. Specks of dust that happen to exist in a universe of magic. This is true in almost all instances in life as well as in writing, especially whenever you think it is not.
2) Remember that you are making something. An artifact. As such, do not treat your work as if it is a sacred part of your biological make-up. It is not. The feelings and ideas, the rhythm of your brain, all the things you use to create the artifact are what’s sacred. All that stuff inside of you and the world around you. Exploit it in your work. There is plenty more where that came from.
3) Read and love or at least appreciate other people’s writing, both from the past and today, in all the genres and forms you can stomach. Keep up to date with new things that are happening in the lit world. Experiment. Enjoy good writers. Relate to them. Get in touch with them and become acquaintances or even friends (if they are still alive, but there are so many great writers alive right now, finding a number that you like should not be a problem. If it is, there’s a deeper problem.) but do not idolize your literary heroes just because they made something wonderful that you love. Remember, ultimately, that they are in the same boat as any of us: They know nothing. Which is likely part of the reason why they were able to make something wonderful that you love.
4) Be a shmendrick. I hope I spelled that right. My Yiddish is rusty. Jessica Blau gave me this piece of advice. A shmendrick is like a shmuck or a jerk or a goofball, but less shmucky or jerky, I guess. The kid breakdancing at his own bar mitzvah is a shmendrick. The guys painted up to watch the ballgame in their garage are shmendricks. The little girl booty-dancing in the check-out line is one too. Be vulnerable. Embarrass yourself. Embrace humility when you write. Enthusiasm and honesty are both charming and contagious.
5) Carol Ann Davis, poet and editor of Crazyhorse, told me to notice, focus on, bring forth like magic, exploit, the plain and the odd in life and in the work you produce, which is excellent advice in terms of language within sentences or paragraphs but also for looking at life and finding ideas or inspiration for your writing. And it is an easy task because almost everything in the universe is plain, odd, and, more often than not, both. This is especially true since it is human nature to think you know things, when you do not. When the brain registers a thing as something other than expected, it triggers the feeling of oddity. Think about and write about life in ways that make you feel strange. Strange is good territory to be in for a writer.
6) Think of your imagination the way horse owners think of their racehorses. Keep it in shape. The imagination is a hungry muscle. John Gardner says something a little bit similar. I think he compares a young writer to a racehorse, a finely tuned organic machine in need of exercise and care. If you can’t be a horse with your whole body, I say, at least turn your imagination into one.
7) Get the joke. It’s a big one. The biggest, most fantastically absurd, tragic, awkward, painful, universal, delirious, joyful, unlikely, mysterious, concrete, and abstract joke there is. If you don’t immediately know what joke I am referring to, then you do not get it. Hint: It’s that any of this whole thing exists in the first place.
8) Never forget that you are writing for an audience. You are like a performer, a child showing their mother a one-armed wheelie on a brand new BMX bike. You are writing, not journaling, because you want your work to enter someone else’s consciousness, not a void. Write what you would want to read, but let every piece dictate its own biology, what it has to be. There are audiences appreciative of all kinds of stories and writing, as long as they are good. Audiences will not agree on what they like or even what is “objectively good” (whatever that means) but that is not your responsibility. Your responsibility is to make it good on your end, to respectfully aid the piece into existence, as if for an ideal audience, and trust that that audience exists somewhere and hope they are willing to put in the work necessary to receive and appreciate your artwork.
9) Don’t obsess about rules or lists of rules or guidelines, advice, or critiques. Use them. Exploit them. But never treat them as gospel. The work of making art is much harder than that. And also much easier. It is essentially about the way you experience life, which is very short and unpredictable, and how you turn the gifts life gave you into something – an artifact – that hopefully you feel good about in some way. Remember Rule #1 and let how little you know or understand excite you to get involved with the universe on every level you can find.
10) Have fun researching. Learning is one of the coolest, most fun things about being a writer. Be writerly in your interests and hobbies. Stay alert and open-minded about them. Also, be skeptical. Be swept up. Be involved. But above all, be interested. If you are not interested in life on some level, then you will not likely make interesting artifacts on any level. Writing is like being unleashed in a field of plastic Easter eggs and each egg holds an infinite number of universes that you can take out and examine in your hand or peer down and get sucked into. The best part is that the eggs seem to be all over the place, the field is lousy with them, everywhere you look.