Ignorance is Bliss: Breaking Writing Rules, Continued…

I’m an impostor. I know it. And I can’t believe no one’s called me out on it. I pretend to be a writer but I can’t claim erudition when it comes to writing. I’m a student of science and math, the rules of which I’ve studied extensively and understand. I love the rubrics of math. I never could understand why people are so math phobic. Math is easy. Pythagorean theoremThere’s nothing subjective about math. The rules never change. Two plus two always equals four. A hundred is always a hundred, whether you count frogs, rose petals, or stars and whether you express it as an exponent or a factor of a larger number. Science has a little more artistry attributed to it, a bit more finesse. But the scientific method is the first commandment in that world and everyone knows the parameters, the independent and dependent variables, the controls, and judges the outcome in identical fashion. Okay, I’ll stop. I sense your eyes glazing over. With writing however, other than those associated with spelling and grammar, I didn’t know there were any rules!

As I reflect, I can’t believe I had the nerve to write a novel in the first place. I’ll admit that the idea for my first book literally possessed me and I spent endless days in sweatshirts and yoga pants, drinking coffee and ignoring my friends and family. It was winter and easy to avoid the scrutiny of those close to me because everyone was buried under the shroud of dark and dreary days. And, honestly, I never thought I’d ever show it to anyone. It took months before I admitted it to my sister. But then I grew more confident as each new reader expressed a love for the story.

A friend suggested I join her writers group. They’d met in an MFA program and once again I considered myself a charlatan. The first time I read a chapter out loud the sound of my heart pounding in my head nearly drowned out my voice. But they liked my writing and my story and encouraged me to pitch the book to agents. I even attended a NYC Pitch Conference with one of them and then went on to a writer’s workshop weekend, all the while pretending to be a real writer. That’s when I had the sudden revelation that there were rules. I’d written the “Hero Model” and never knew it existed. My protagonist saves an old man who is about to be set on fire in the beginning of my first novel. I’d used the “Save the Cat” technique without knowing it had a name and had been identified by Blake Snyder in his book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. At one workshop an agent encouraged us to Kill our Darlings, and I thought her incredibly clever to coin such a phrase and proceeded to cut some parts from my novel that I loved, but I knew had to go. Little did I know she was quoting William Faulkner! Duh!

As I continued to dissect my novel for others and defended its plot points and character development, I found I’d followed almost all the rules without any prior knowledge. But now, I worry about the rules, and frequently find myself paralyzed to the point of not wanting to write at all.

And so I’m forced to ask the question: How could this possibly have happened? How could I have produced a fairly respectable manuscript without any formal education? Is it because I’ve seen a million movies and read a million books? Could that be enough to spawn a writer? Is it something that’s in a person’s DNA? Something God-given? Or is it an unforeseen force of nature, like lightning flashing in the darkness? I believe anyone can be born with a gift, but it takes a lot of hard work to nurture and develop it.

People tell me all the time that I have the right to call myself an author because I’ve actually written a novel, four and two halves to be mathematically correct. But it’s hard to say that out loud when you haven’t been formally educated in writing or made your mark in the publishing world. It’s like when you dance at the innocent age of three. You have no concept of the waltz, the polka or the dougie. You just express yourself to music, do whatever you feel like, joyfully, unabashedly and with pride. Then, you grow up and realize people will judge you by a set of standards. People might laugh at you and you’ll be embarrassed.

And you stop dancing. Little girl dancing in studio

Perhaps I’m just reflecting on the olden days when it seemed like people just wrote. I saw an interview a few months back and I wish I could recall the writer’s name. He was a crotchety old guy, a famous author, and it was obviously an interview that happened many years ago. He said something to the effect of: I just write the story and then I give it to somebody else to put in all the commas and fix shit. Maybe it’s just the usually writer paranoia. To quote Robert De Niro at the Oscars Sunday night, “The mind of a writer can be a truly a terrifying thing: isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

I guess in some ways, it’s not a total surprise. People can figure out that two plus two equals four without someone teaching it to them. And I don’t mean to simplify the art of writing to that level. Maybe it’s more like art. There are techniques you can learn in painting, drawing and sculpture, but the true essence is in the passion for the work. If you over think methodology or study what others have done too much, you lose the raw emotion and thrill of discovery. My writing has always been more like the delight of a child who believes she can dance, yet may never become a real ballerina. And so, I guess I’ll keep dancing even if I never make it to the stage. I’ve had my moments when I’ve been criticized and disparaged for not following convention and even for the reverse, too many clichés or overused tropes, but my fingers keep prancing on that keyboard at a frenzied pace. For the joy is what makes it worthwhile. In some ways I feel like a hypocrite, giving advice here about how to write. I guess I’ll assuage my guilt by saying take what you like and ignore the rest. I say we reclaim our independence and write what we feel like writing, and let the rules be damned.

(Coincidentally, just this week Writer Unboxed posted a similar discussion called MFA vs. NYC vs. DIY. Check it out here.) 

Up Next from Caryn: Friday Inspiration: Homage to Shirley Temple





Author: Caryn McGill

Caryn is a former high school science teacher, school district administrator and adjunct college professor.

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