The Rules of Writing
I recently received a book called The Opposite Is Also True: A Journal of Creative Wisdom for Artists. I am a sucker for books with quotes and pithy bits of information that can help expand my creative life. I spend an unholy amount of time on BrainyQuotes, finding inspiration for my students. But The Opposite Is Also True was different. The book consisted of a series of facing pages, each pair suggesting opposing theories or activities to help guide your artistic practice – plan a studio/write anywhere, do one thing well/have a range of talents, find a tribe/ignore everyone. The goal is to help you see both sides of each issue and recognize what sparks your creativity.
This could have been a frustrating book. It was tempting to sit back and say “Is there NO one way? You’re the expert; tell me what to do.” And yet, that is exactly the point. I’ve taught writing classes for decades, and been a writer for even longer, and I can tell you that what works for one writer generally will not work for the next (this also applies to readers, which is a marvelous balm for the ego when someone doesn’t like your work). Some authors write in the morning, others while drunk. Some need solitude; others need noise. I have a friend who writes 90-page outlines. My first three novels were written as they came, sets of stories that connected as they grew.
There is no one way. Say it now, three times (preferably while clicking your little red shoes). Let it sink into your mind. Let it open a door in your imagination.
A wonderful thing about writing is that yes, it is about creativity, and words, and readers, and stories, but it is also a chance to figure out who you are at your most elemental level. In the interest of art, you get to sit back and think “Am I better with a schedule?” “Do I learn better from a mentor or from myself?” “Is my work stronger when I look back or ahead?” Answering these questions will do far more than make you a better writer – because what is best for your writing is often exactly what you need as a human being.
This was brought home to me recently, in a long and difficult way (because we are apparently never too old to learn this lesson). A book I had written with my whole soul had been rejected, soundly, by many publishers. This happens. I know it, and it wasn’t the first time. But I didn’t anticipate it, and it hit my heart hard. At the same time, many of those same publishers expressed interest in a second book idea we had pitched along with the original manuscript. The second concept was small, nascent, a lovely little thing in the back of my mind that I had forthrightly refused to think about while working on the Big Project. But the new idea was the one they wanted.
Ego damaged, I leapt toward it. I didn’t do what I know is right for my writing, which is to let a book concept simmer for months while its tendrils and possibilities find their way to me. This was a novel about scent and the power of the sense of smell, and I needed those months to research and find the metaphorical possibilities in facts that would lead to deep and unusual stories. But I was on a mission and, coincidentally, right up against the starting line of NaNoWriMo—the annual write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge.
Now, I’m going to stop right here and remind you of the original premise of this article, which is that no one writing approach works for everyone. My son has done NaNoWriMo for over ten years. He is the kind of writer who can sit down anywhere – on a plane, in a hospital room, it doesn’t matter – and stories pour out of him. All he needs is the excuse and the structure to write. A community doesn’t hurt, either. NaNoWriMo gives him all that in spades.
But I don’t write like that, and I know it. Still, driven by an emotional need to prove my worth, I decided I would do the challenge. I pounded out the sentences, chasing words, not even certain what I was writing. I hit my goal every day though, and by the end of that month I had 50,000 words. And a real mess on my hands.
It took me another five years to finish that novel. I did it four complete times, unraveling my way back over and over to the core of the story. The book went from three points of view, to four, to two, until Emmeline’s voice mercifully showed up in my head one morning and guided me through the forest I had created. I love the novel that The Scent Keeper became, and I like to think it wouldn’t have come out as it did if it hadn’t gone through all those iterations. But the truth is, it didn’t have to. Not quite so much, anyway. If I had just sat back, believed in who I was as a writer, let the book simmer until it found me, the path would have been there all along.
Which is also how I work best as a human being, interestingly enough, and perhaps that was the most important lesson I took away from writing The Scent Keeper – and now from The Opposite is Also True.
In the end, it turns out the only real cardinal rule of writing is “Know thyself”.
Erica Bauermeister is the best-selling author of four novels, including The School of Essential Ingredients and, most recently, The Scent Keeper.