Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Myths of Sissy Fuss

As is her wont, Squirrel got me to thinking, not in that self-critical, turn-off-the-association-of-ideas way that sometimes comes along to protest an otherwise productive writing session, but in the nature of all the myths about writing I've brought to the table from my callow youth onward, and from which I have tried to disassociate myself and as well in the nature of all the myths students, authors, and clients have brought forth.

Myth Number One: Write only what you know. True enough, there are times we need to do some research, to find out about what was and was not in existence at a given time or place, where the subway stop really in mid-town Manhattan, where the red Line stops in Boston, how high Mt. Kilimanjaro really is. That said, I should have no "right" to portray female characters, Captain Nemo should have remained a ferry boat captain, all my remaining characters should be male, white, etc. And heaven forefend I should write something set in a past historical landscape or a future imaginary one, nor should I write about alternate universes I've never been to.

Myth Number Two: Show--don't tell. Hey, there are times when you have to tell because doing otherwise will take a hell of a lot of pages and bore the pants off the reader. And besides, telling helps with the perspective; after a while, the reader gets to see which events are more important.

Myth Number Three: Dialogue replicates conventional speech patterns. Have I got news for you. To disprove this quaint notion, try eavesdropping on conversations while waiting in line somewhere, or in a doctor's waiting room. Conventional speech is often boring, noncommittal, or non-responsive. Dramatic conversation has the sound of speech but is more barbed, specific in its way, revelatory of the speaker or the speaker's agenda and/or psychology.

Myth Number Four: Beginning writers should use first-person point of view because it is the easiest. Lots of luck if you believe this; the I needs as much dimension and layering of traits as any other dramatic POV. You start listening to this kind of stuff, you'll discover all your characters sound alike.

Myth Number Five: You--whoever you are--among all others who write, are unfortunate because everyone else's family is more eccentric, dysfunctional, funny,opportunistic, dramatic than yours. It only seems that way. Take a look at Uncle Harry. And what about Aunt Viv. And you really think Aunt Mavis was Uncle Ralph's first wife? Yo, ask around.

Myth Number Six: As in real life, characters always say exactly what they mean. Where do you get this kind of stuff?

Myth Number Seven: Sending out novels and short stories to agents and editors will make you so cynical, you won't be able to write. Where do you get this kind of stuff?

Myth Number Eight: Talent is the most important element in getting your stories published. I'm beginning to be concerned about you. If you want something important to hang onto, try persistence.

Myth Number Nine: If it isn't painful, it isn't any good. True enough, you may encounter some truths and discoveries you hadn't anticipated, but if you're looking overall for an "isn't" try: If it isn't fun, it probably isn't any good.

Myth Number Ten: Make sure you explain everything. Readers don't like to be left in the dark. , Yeah, Right. Henry James explained everything. You always know where you stand in Finnegan's Wake. Flannery O'Connor left no loose end unresolved. When a reader wonders what's going on, they are often exhibiting a characteristic known as suspense.


Anonymous said...

I was listening to a writer friend go on about several so-called writing rules. I asked to see his copy of On Chisel Beach by Ian McEwan, who my friend adores. Opening the book to a random page, I found several places where these rules were violated. "Now, what were those rules again?"

Matt said...

Anyone who dareth to speak of one or any of these myths to students should only refer to them as (on a good day) "guidelines". Indeed, as regards results, writing is about as straight-forward as investing in the stock market; there are so-called "rules" (buy low, sell high), but beyond their facade they don't really make your actions better or worse.

For example, "write what you know" would - yes - bore me to tears. But seen from a metaphysical perspective (what do you know about the human condition, about the larger direction of man), then you begin to smell the satisfying odour of rubber hitting the road. Eugene Zamyatin, when writing his dystopic pre-"1984" classic "We", wrote about what he knew about: the tyranny of totalitarian rule which appears on the surface as helping society. He did this very effectively, even if the end result appears to be sci-fi. So many Soviet-era authors used this route, in particular Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers.

Querulous Squirrel said...

I assume you meant me. Forgive me if you didn't. I assume you meant my statement about rules needing to be broken. I have had traumatic writing experiences trying to stay within the rules of mediocre instructors. As Matt says, there are different levels of knowing, and I think only the writer can figure out how to access that other level, perhaps with the modeling of quirky models he finds for himself (Loved: We). I was sick yesterday and bombarded myself with an entire season's marathon of America's Top Model and couldn't believe the similarity to the vagaries of criticism in writing graduate school: "You must be less stiff. You must be more natural. You are too natural and anxious. How can anyone model/write as anxious as you?" All of these teachers in both professions want you to do it exactly like they do because that is all they know and thus the rules. I was chastised for a character my teacher didn't like. John Updike in a recent interview said no one wanted to publish his Rabbit stories because he was too unlikable. "That's the point." said Updike. But a little upstart like me can't say that and get away with it.