We now turn to the last of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing: Writing by inspiration, rather than controlling the performance of the tale. It’s at this hurdle that many writers come a cropper.
Why? Because of one word. A four-letter word. A four-letter “F-word.” Fear.
Fear of failure. Writing failure. This is not a natural fear. Many of us can recall the proud day when we first wrote one of our own ideas. (Or, our children’s first writing experiences.) Often, the first composition is an early school assignment, lovingly illustrated in crayon by the young child. No fear there. Here is what I remember:
By the time I was four years old, I had learned to read and write. Then I started kindergarten, and made my first new acquaintance: a school bus seatmate, who was a little blond boy named Danny. I don’t recall what we talked about, but it was so new to share experiences with someone my own age (my sister was almost two years younger than I) that after I came home one afternoon, I wanted to preserve the event for posterity. I found a piece of paper and a pencil, and I wrote, “Danny M. is my” but I didn’t know how to spell “friend.” I knew what to do about that, however, because the word was in one of the storybooks on my toy shelf. I found the book, turned to the page I needed, and carefully copied the word. Then I showed my magnum opus to my mother.
At age 5, I had written my own thought, and even knew how to research and edit my own work. No fear there, either.
So, when does the fear of writing failure begin? I believe it’s when a child is given a writing assignment and is told, This is how you must write. Suddenly there are many rules to be memorized and meticulously applied, to regulate what used to be private property: the voice inside one’s head. The words that were once joyfully absorbed from reading, and subsequently formed spontaneous thoughts, now must be produced upon demand of an authority figure who pronounces judgment on those thoughts – punctuated with a red pencil.
The fear grows as the complexity of the rules and the pressure to follow them increase. Soon the child must write a whole paragraph of words, and do it within a classroom time limit. Then the deadline invades the home: a whole page of paragraphs, due on Monday.
Finally, the child is tasked with producing multiple pages of writing, on a topic about which the child may never have thought deeply enough for thorough understanding, or even to form an opinion. Even worse, those thoughts that the child never had the opportunity to think, must now be presented in advance, in the form of an orderly summary called an “outline.” Neglect the requirements, and face disciplinary action, such as a failing mark for the assignment.
The result is often conditioned compliance. When I was writing my first novel, and mentioned it to a friend, she told me that she’d had a story idea for many years, but she would never have the time to write it, because she’d “have to think it all the way through, first,” and then write it down, from beginning to end.
Writing is therapeutic, and some form of writing should be a part of everyone’s life. It should be accomplished in whatever manner makes it easy, enjoyable, encourages creativity, communicates clearly, and adds to the meaning or beauty of existence. Any theory or practice that prevents someone from achieving these goals – especially, anything that inhibits writing – should be abandoned.
That’s why I’m a pantser. Planning my writing is anathema: my brain just doesn’t work that way. I have outlined only under duress (while I was in public school, and for one university English Composition assignment). This means that I had to hurry and write the papers in advance, and then analyze them, to extract an outline. No teacher ever knew the difference, and because my papers were done early, I had plenty of time to proofread and polish them. I never had to outline a graduate school paper, so I pantsed all of them, too. All of my academic writing received the highest marks.
I pantsed Irish Firebrands. I wrote what I felt like writing: beginnings, middles and ends of scenes. I wrote the end of the story before I was sure about the beginning. I edited as I wrote, eventually all the holes zipped shut, and I never suffered from writer’s block.
Should all writers unilaterally adopt these habits? Perhaps not, because we’re not clones (for which fact, people of faith will thank God, fasting), and all people have differing psychological needs which their writing must serve. Moreover, the degree to which a writer “pants” or plots depends the most on the fictional lives that are being chronicled – and life doesn’t follow rules.
But too many writers feel rule-induced insecurity about their writing: a state of affairs that avant-garde gurus and publishing gatekeepers ruthlessly exploit, issuing dire warnings about undisciplined Indie Authors, and the need for Indies to submit to expert evaluation and control. Nevertheless, if you don’t like to outline or plot, but feel forced to do it; if you do have an outline or plot and feel uneasy when your characters deviate from it; if you frequently suffer from writer’s block – you may be more of a pantser than a plotter, and will write better (and write more enjoyably) with less control.
The only rules that matter are the ones that affect the ability of Written Art to communicate: The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing. Any literate person can master them. Writing is neither brain surgery nor rocket science, but it’s also not like herding cats. As long as you achieve clear artistic communication, you are free to follow your Muse.
Michelangelo had to sculpt Mary much larger than the life-sized Christ, in order for his composition of the Pietà to work.* This is not considered to be an error, but is called “artistic license.” The sculpture is successful because it communicates. Authors are Artists, too, and we’re entitled to exercise our own artistic liberties. We can adopt the philosophy of the late landscape artist Bob Ross: “We don’t make mistakes. We have happy accidents.”
I have no idea how much rehearsal went into polishing the mirror pantomime scene from the Marx Brothers’ motion picture Duck Soup, but like editing a story, it had to be a considerable amount. What I do know, is that all three Marx Brothers were well over age 40 when they made the film: gleefully cavorting for the camera regardless of possible opinions about appropriate acting roles for middle-aged men. The film might not have garnered critical acclaim, and it might not have made much money, but at least, they’d had fun “trying to get a laugh.” If Actors can have fun performing their Art, why must Authors fear performing our Art?
If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing it right.
I’ll be looking for you, on the other side of the mirror….
* Michelangelo also had to assert copyright for the Pietà. When he overheard people arguing about which artist had produced the piece, he went back that night and carved his name into one of the straps securing Mary’s garment.