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Rules, Rules, Rules Were Meant to Be Broken

I’ve got a formal education in creative writing. That means I was given techniques, criterion, and rules by which to write. This included how to form beautiful and interesting yet clear sentences, character development, story arc, setting description, and a boatload of things not to do. Don’t say it was all a dream. Don’t kill the main character off at the end of the story. Don’t write in baroque style. Don’t write about violence or death. Now it was okay to break grammar rules as long as it was done on purpose, but the majority of the rules were about what you could write and these always grated with me. So I’ll explain why at a certain point a writer needs to start trusting their instincts and break any rule they’ve been told should never be done.

The Red Cape

Now, throughout all of my educational career when a teacher would tell me I couldn’t write something, I basically said “Well, screw that. I’m gonna write it.” I was like a bull and their rule was a red cape flying in my face. Don’t say it was all a dream? Allow me to present a short story wherein the realist moments only happen in dreams and the most surreal moments happen when awake. Don’t kill off the main character at the end? Allow me to present a novel wherein each chapter is close limited third about a different character wherein they die at the end. Don’t write purple prose? Allow me to present stories with poetic and baroque style. Don’t write about violence, suicide, or the so-called dregs of society? Allow me to present a story about a former child prostitute dying of AIDS. Don’t write genre fiction? Allow me to present a novel about a woman who lives forever, a short story about a woman who flies, a graphic novel about two supernatural beings/superheroes, a romance novel, and so on. Don’t show sex? Ho, ho, ho! Telling me I can’t do something as a writer is the surest way to make me do it to try to prove you wrong. My teachers often let me get away with it because what I gave them didn’t lack in technique or criteria of writing. It was my point to do the best at it I could, so as to show that these rules weren’t hard and fast. They didn’t prevent the work from being good. Maybe it meant a writer had to work harder at it, but I don’t think so.

Realism vs Magic Realism

“It was all a dream” is possibly the most cliche sentence in the English language, so yes, it is probably best to avoid this sentence in writing. That doesn’t mean, however, that writing dream sequences or whole narratives in dream is a bad thing. Watch Waking Life if you don’t believe me. There is always a way to go about this, and it usually involves the use of Magic Realist techniques. Treating dreams as reality only makes sense. We dream. It is a subject we should write about. Realism, to me, often means dry writing. Writing without spark or real interest, usually because it is combined with other rules, such as a lack of dark subjects, poetic language, or unrealistic elements of any kind. This is what all of my teachers wanted us to write; as such, there were a lot of stories about characters going to a funeral, planning a funeral, the journey to see a family member die, a marriage that wasn’t quite working out. Most of these never showed death and the characters when faced with making hard decisions often chose stasis over change for the better. That’s all very real. Most people are like that. But they started to blend together for me. The stories that stick out from those classes were the stories that weren’t very real such as the couple who had an octopus for a baby. The reality of realism fiction is that we’ve read basically all of those stories and they have to be done so well as to stick out that our minds are blown away. Dream sequences, houses that are spiteful, the finding of a baby hand in the living room, the questioning of what is real and what isn’t are new ways to tell the same ideas. Is it a hook? Of course it is, but at least it is entertaining as well as interesting.

Chekhov and the Dead Character

At one point, one of my teachers brought up an essay by a writer wherein every time she gave a rule to her students, she would then read a Chekhov story that broke that rule. If you don’t know this one, it is called “Learning from Chekhov” and it’s by Francine Prose. Now according to everyone who knows anything about literature, Chekhov is a giant of writing. Apparently. Once when writing my novel about the girls who all kill themselves (called When the Lights Flicker Out), said same teacher tried to tell me I couldn’t kill off the characters at the end. I rebutted, Chekhov did it, and she said something along the lines of I’m not Chekhov. Now this feels like a backhanded compliment meant to be a put down. I am not a fan of Chekhov’s writing. I’ve never felt he was very good. The subtext everyone claims is there feels like major digging to me and he has characters do exposition dumps in his plays. So to me, not being Chekhov is a good thing. I’m smart enough to know, however, that said teacher thought of Chekhov as not just a good writer, but a great writer. Yeah, I’m not Chekhov. I’m good with that. I’m Alex Miceli. I write the stories Alex Miceli would write, not the stories Anton Chekhov would write. Creative writing is completely subjective. I wouldn’t try to ape even a writer I did like. But the idea behind the statement that “You’re not Chekhov” isn’t that you’ll write like Chekhov; it’s that you aren’t as good as Chekhov or that you haven’t earned the right to do what Chekhov has done. Well, you and every other writer won’t be better unless you try and you aren’t trying much if you aren’t pushing yourself to do hard things. Basically, you can’t know if you’re good enough to have your character die at the end until you try and then try harder.

Sensationalism/Sentimentalism vs Dark Subjects

I understand why sometimes teachers want their writing students to shy away from dark subjects such a violence, rape, murder, suicide, and other nasty business, which is all a part of life too. A good amount of writers can’t do justice to those subjects and it comes from an inability to prevent their prose from becoming sensationalist or sentimental. Neither of which is good writing. However, that doesn’t mean these subjects can’t be written about without becoming sensationalist or sentimental and can even be written with some dignity and gentleness. It’s harder, obviously, but it also doesn’t mean that again writers shouldn’t try and try harder to write about these subjects. Part of the problem, though, is that sometimes critics and teachers associate these subjects so much with bad writing that they don’t judge the piece in front of them but their past experiences with the bad writing. They also may find these subjects just too uncomfortable to read about. That’s fine, but they should acknowledge that sensation and separate it from their thoughts on the work critically. Art that makes a person uncomfortable because it forces them to face the worst parts of life is a good thing. Art shouldn’t shy away from these subjects but, yes, they must be treated delicately, which means with prose that doesn’t make it a sideshow freak or a tearjerker.

Purple Prose vs Baroque/Poetic Style

Purple Prose is hard to describe. Examples of it can be pointed out easily, such as much of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the best way I have to explain it is to say that emphasis is overstated and adjectives and adverbs are overused. It is not the same as using a very baroque or poetic prose style. Baroque almost edges into purple but skates back from that edge instead of tipping over it. Most likely because while descriptive words are heavily uses, the emphasis is not overstated. Poetic style is similar but more closely follows the techniques of poetry than of prose. Figurative language is heavily used and sound is a factor in the configuring of sentences. While figurative language is often used in prose, the focus on sound is not typical. I prefer the language in my fiction to be more baroque or poetic because it helps create tone in the work without being overt. Purple prose is at odds with that in that it is overt. The tone is stated instead of created. While poetic style and baroque language can both use a lot of adjectives and adverbs that does not make them purple. The idea that a lot of either of these sentence parts is automatically bad is not correct. Description is important but style effects the sensation it creates in the reader. Mostly a writer needs to back off from telling the reader how to feel.

The Merit of the Genre Fictions

Early in my writing education, a teacher said that a writer, much like a woman, couldn’t be a wife and whore at the same time. Putting aside the very erroneous idea that matrimonial love and exclusivity are one in the same, I’ve already written my disagreements on this subject. The idea that all of the work that has ever existed in genre fiction is without merit simply by being genre fiction always puts me off. It is a kind of prejudice. I don’t believe that any medium can be judged by the sub-type it happens to be. This includes music, film, TV, and poetry in addition to fiction. I won’t say all rap is bad simply because it is rap. I won’t say all horror movies are bad simply because they are horror movies. A person is allowed to not like a specific genre. But a personal preference is not the same as prejudging all of the content of the genre as being without merit as an artistic endeavor. We still have things to learn from genre work. We can still discover ideas and amazement in genre work. Of any medium. Stephen King, who for the longest time was simply considered a horror fiction writer, is now being taught in classrooms as a technically adapt and thematically interesting writer. Does that mean that all his work is worthwhile? Of course not, he writes two thousand words a day. No one keeps up that much momentum without having bad days. But Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is taught in classrooms and has been for years, but for being published in serial, it suffers from serious structurual issues and could have done with several more edits. And until the middle of writing that book, he was a genre writer, focusing solely on adventure novels. A bit of these genre roots can be seen in his epic novel, but his best work is actually the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener“, which showed that he had the ability to write beautiful and thought-provoking narratives that weren’t long-winded or structurally unsound. Melville could have been pigeonholed because of his past genre work, but we didn’t do that to him, and no writer or work of fiction should be prejudged based who wrote it or to what genre it may belong. Writers are not in stasis and neither are their skills. They may surprise you.

When Can You Break the “Rules”?

I understand the idea that when first learning writers should focus on structure, technique, character development, the well crafted sentence, and so on, instead of trying the harder stuff. However, I believe critics and teachers should trust writers’ instincts more as well. Perhaps they have already mastered those things and are ready for the harder stuff. Perhaps forcing them to write content they don’t care about will make their craft suffer. As Flannery O’Connor said the writer will write the kind of stories they want to read. A person has to care about what they are working on to give it their all. She and I may have been very different in our beliefs and styles, but I’ve never agreed with another writer more. I certainly believe that grad students should be encouraged to break the rules and experiment. That is definitely the time in which the student has proven that they are capable at their craft and need to be challenged. It is better that they face challenges in their work with some guidance, instead of waiting until they are out from under the thumb of academics. And if a writer decides to strike out on their own without any academic guidance, then more than ever they need to trust their instincts. All that being said, every writer, no matter what level of skill or education, has to trust in the work to guide them to the proper places and ignore rules if the work requires them to be broken.

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Posted by on March 9, 2018 in Craft of Writing


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Growing Older but Not Afraid of Age

My birthday was this week, and I’m quickly approaching the big Three Oh. But I’m not upset that I’m getting up there in age. Some of my older readers may be scoffing at the idea of me “getting up there” or that thirty is anything to feel bad about in the first place. Some of my younger readers may think there isn’t much difference in our ages, and therefore, our physical conditions. When I think back on how much more energy I had and how much less stiff my joints were eight years ago, I can’t help but feel myself growing older. What doesn’t make me feel old, however, is the fact that my ten year high school reunion was also this week. The ten years between then and now were the best of my life: I won some writing awards, got published, met the love of my life, got a job I love, and discovered some new things I really love–that’s a lot of love. But I want the fun to continue, so I want to explore some ideas that help that happen.

Taking Care of Myself:

I want to be around for a while. I want a long and healthy life. Long isn’t worth much if it isn’t also healthy. Which is why I try to workout everyday. I’m not always successful. I miss a lot of days, but it’s not like I haven’t worked out in a week, more like I miss 2-3 days a week. I remind myself that that’s better than nothing and that just because I don’t meet the goal of working out everyday, doesn’t mean I should give up entirely. I also try to eat better, mostly by going with the healthier option or stopping when I’m full. I still drink coffee (with cream and sugar) everyday (I never miss a day of coffee). I don’t, however, count pounds or calories (I don’t even own a scale), because I base my eating and working out habits on whether I feel well or bad. I don’t over eat because it makes my stomach hurt. I workout because it makes my joints and muscles feel better–sometimes it even helps my energy level and any stomach issues.

One thing I have noticed that has changed as I’ve gotten older is the number of pills I take. When I was younger, it was only one. Now it is six. There is a joke in our house that you can tell how old you are by how many pills you take. It’s funny, but as we age our bodies need more help. In the last year, my health hasn’t been the best, but my best isn’t all that good in the first place. The need to protect your health isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a gradual build as things start to break down. Like an aging car, parts of the human body start to fail as time passes, and as more time passes, the more parts start failing. I’m a huge believer in preventative care. I don’t have the same health problems of a person in their forties or fifties, but I know that now is the time that I make decisions and habits that will help me stay healthier in my forties and fifties. This is the whole reason I wear sunscreen everyday, even on cloudy days (that sounds like I’m a freak, but in truth, I don’t check the weather before I put on sunscreen). I am aware that not all health problems are preventable, having had some that weren’t, but a good enough amount are. Taking care of myself isn’t about looking good or impressing people, nor is it meant to be a chore, but a way of life. My health is a priority.

Enjoying Myself:

I also make it a priority to enjoy my time. Our time is limited. There’s only so much of it we should be spending on things we don’t enjoy. I try to have a bit of fun everyday, even if it is just reading a chapter of a book, having a single cookie (or five), watching an episode of a TV show I like, or playing half an hour of video games. Doing something fun everyday doesn’t mean party drinking or doing some crazy or irresponsible act. Instead it means making sure I’m having a good time with my life. In America, there seems to be a struggle between the Lazy or Party attitude and the Workaholic attitude. It’s centered around the idea that some don’t want the party to end or don’t want to work are at odds with those that think adulthood means the end of fun. Both are kind of crazy. You can’t have fun if you don’t have a roof over your head, and just because you’re working, doesn’t mean you’re a robot. A balance is needed between responsibility and fun. I’ve never been much for crazy parties or spending or a lack of work ethic, though I find myself to be less hardworking than I want to be. I didn’t work as hard as some of my classmates when I was school (high and college), but in college, that seemed to pay off for me. I got better grades than the students that spent all their time studying and working and those that partied, because I refused to stay up late and always got a full night’s sleep. This is a very roundabout way of saying that the middle way is better than the extremes. I want to enjoy myself, but I also want to be responsible. If I do everything I need to do, my relaxation or fun is even better, because there is nothing hanging over my head. My happiness is a priority.

Learning from Mistakes:

This is a pretty big one. As we get older, we are supposed to get wiser, which typically comes from screwing up a lot and learning why we screwed up and never doing that again. Not everyone learns from their mistakes. They make the same mistakes over and over again, typically when it comes to finance. No one is perfect, and everyone screws up every once in a while. That’s fine. As long as we aren’t all Stan Smith (“You should know by now, I don’t learn lessons”), we should be good on this front. Most people can’t learn from other peoples’ mistakes. Most of us have to make the mistake ourselves first. That’s fine too. We learn lessons better from our own perspective, but it’s not a bad idea to look to history first. “Hmm, does dumping my entire life savings and everything I own into stocks sound like a good idea? Let me check history first . . . Oh, oh-ho. No, not a good idea. Is working out and eating right really worth it? Well, my parent died of a heart attack, so yes. Does marrying my ex-spouse again sound like a good idea? I think not.” We don’t learn from our mistakes or the mistakes of others when we believe we haven’t made a mistake or are incapable of doing so. We are not infallible. The people who believe they are make the most mistakes. It’s important to look back on a disaster and ask ourselves what we could have done differently, what we should have been doing in the first place, to avoid the disaster a second time. It’s not about hindsight; it’s about growth. It’s not about blame, because if you’re looking for someone to blame, check the mirror first. I try my best to admit when I’ve made a mistake both to myself and others. My growth is a priority.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Things:

Some people end up pretty set in their ways. I like to stay at home and watch the same movies and TV shows over and over again. Though I am trying to finish TV shows that I have started and haven’t finished yet (recently just finished Lost, A Gifted Man, and I refuse to finish Heroes because what in the world were they thinking?). On my birthday, I prefer to eat at the same restaurant every year: a Mexican restaurant more than one freeway away from where I currently live where parking is metered and a meal for two is about twenty bucks. I don’t go to this restaurant any other time of year, and I don’t really want to eat anywhere else. It’s a total pain, but the tacos make it worth it. I did not go to that restaurant this birthday, though I may still later this month. Instead, I got a free burger at a chain restaurant, because free, and went to my high school reunion. My point is that sometimes people need to try new things and not set themselves up to hate it. Once I tried octopus sushi. Now I love octopuses (octopi is not correct by the way) when they are alive. They are smart with long memories. But that wasn’t going to stop me from trying it. I wish I could say I loved the taste, but I did not. Trying new things doesn’t mean you’ll love every new thing you try. It means that sometimes the new thing will suck and sometimes it will rock. This is mostly true of food, but also of events. I went to writers’ critiquing circle some months ago, hoping I might meet some people I could share my work with, that was a bust, but I tried. I tried a coffee shop near my old apartment, and whenever I’m out that way, I try to stop in there, because my god! I got a book of writing prompts for my birthday, and while I usually avoid these like the plague, I decided to save them and write one a day. Hopefully, that goes well. I try not to expect the worst to happen when I do things. I try to expect the best but not to be too disappointed if it doesn’t all go well. My positive attitude is a priority.

Age as Triumph:

Some people get really down around their birthdays because they are getting older. They aren’t as young as they used to be. They try to hold on to the kinds of crazy things they did when they were younger by drinking too much, buying products that make them feel young, staying out too late, shirking their responsibilities, or making life decisions like they are still in their early twenties. Or people act as though they are already in the grave, walking through life as if it is already over and they’re just waiting for the grim reaper to make it official. Neither way is a good outlook and makes for a crappy birthday. Each year older we get is a triumph over a dangerous world. To me, each birthday is the score, and each birthday I have means I’m winning. It’s why I’m happy to tell people how old I am (if they ask, it’s superfluous to announce stuff like that). I’m happy to be growing older, especially when I am happy with my life. So if you want to wish me a happy birthday, know that I’m already having one!

For those of you who’s birthdays are near, I wish you a happy birthday as well, hoping that it is joyous and exactly the kind of fun you want.

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Posted by on August 3, 2015 in Social Issues


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