No, Not Those Rules: Advice On Writing And Life


This weekend the Guardian compiled lists of rules for writing by a variety of famous authors — the result is either fascinating or enraging, depending on how you feel about writing, lists, and advice.

As The New Yorker‘s Macy Halford notes, the two-part article includes some gems, though my favorites are different from hers. Margaret Atwood‘s advice to “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting” is refreshingly concrete, and would have saved me a lot of grief had I followed it years ago. And A.L. Kennedy says,

Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.

Writing can be a selfish pursuit, and some writers — especially but not exclusively those who work in memoir — can overestimate the importance of their art and underestimate the importance of other people. Only the latter have feelings. But while A.L. Kennedy’s words seem like solid advice for being a good person, reading lists of rules won’t make anyone a good writer. Kennedy recognizes this in her very first rule:

Have humility. Older/more ­experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. ­Consider what they say. However, don’t automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

Halford appears to concur. She writes, “the lists, taken together, show that the writers, despite having in common that they are all successful practitioners of the craft, have entirely personal sets of rules.” I tend to take a harsher view when faced with advice for writing, or relationships, or really any aspect of life that is at all abstract: nobody knows shit. Not only are our rules for working and living intensely personal, I also doubt that we really live by them at all. I think most people live — and most writers write — more by intuition than by maxim, and lists like the ones in the Guardian are more of an amusing exercise than actual words of wisdom. After all, it’s fun to give advice. Sometimes it’s fun to read it. But to follow it too closely is, as Kennedy says, often folly.

Ten Rules For Writing Fiction (Part One) [Guardian]
Ten Rules For Writing Fiction (Part Two) [Guardian]
Rules About Rules About Writing (Or, Why Mush Will Never Triumph) [New Yorker Book Bench]

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