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.