August 16, 2011

A Small Rant on Writing Advice

        A while back I read Elmore Leonard’s rules on writing, and I'm afraid it brought out all the contrarian curmudgeon in me!  It’s pretty clear Elmore Leonard wouldn’t approve my writing.  On the other hand, while I’ve never read anything of his, I don’t particularly like the writing that he holds up as a model, either.  The more the professionals tell me that if I don’t write like Steinbeck I’m no good, the more stubbornly I dismiss the whole snotty, self-satisfied lot of ‘em.  Who needs their smug “advice” anyway?  Sure, Steinbecks’s an acclaimed writer, but I don’t want to write like Steinbeck.  I wouldn’t take Steinbeckitude as a gift.  In fact, I write precisely in the hope that there will be more non-Steinbeckian books in the world.
        Please pardon my stridency and allow me to hazard here an analogy between the publishing industry and the modeling industry.  Models are undoubtedly beautiful -- they are the ones whose beauty has been officially proclaimed by the professionals, leaving the rest of us wondering whether we need to do whatever it is they do so that we, too, can be beautiful.  There are thousands of books and magazines offering us advice on how to be beautiful – use the right products, have the right hairstyle, wear the right clothes, do the right exercises... get the right plastic surgery...  But what if I don’t want to look like Gisele Bündchen (or whoever’s hot right now)?  I want to look like me, beautiful.  So where is that line between helping me be me beautiful, and trying to hector me into longing to be just like a fashion model?  Where is the line between helping me make my writing excellent and trying to hector me into thinking I have to write like Steinbeck to be publishable?
        As for Leonard’s advice, of course all his points are absolutely useful ideas to keep in mind as a sort of checklist to consider.  But I can think of exceptions to all of them.  Leonard’s over-all point, that the author should get out of the way of the story, is also very interesting and worth considering.  Certainly writing should not be self-advertising, like the way Jim Carrey acts, or jarring... but many of my favorite books are characterized by the “voice” of the narration, even when there is no narrator.  J. K. Rowling and Jane Austen are both examples of this – there is no character telling the story; the narrator is an invisible omniscient... and yet both authors provide humor and commentary in their choices of how they tell the story.  It's clear that someone is telling the story, and the personality of that invisible someone is one of the most enjoyable things about their books.
        What does all this have to do with my writing?  (Or yours?)  I admit that it may be dreadful arrogance on my part to resist so stubbornly the idea that I should mold myself to others’ advice, and my only defense is that I understand I will never be a best-seller any more than I will ever be a supermodel.  I want to be the best writer I can be – I want it badly! – but if the way to be a good writer is to write more like Steinbeck, I’m going to have to say, “No, thanks.”  I write because I have stories I want to share, and if failing to follow others’ writing advice means not so many people will ever read my stories, that makes me sad.  But I think it would be even sadder to spend my time forcing myself to tell other people’s stories in other people’s styles.

[Picture: Writing, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009.  (This piece was commissioned as the logo for a romance writers group, the Quirky Ladies.)]


Nan said...

When editing/correcting/improving (I hope) my students' writing, I would remind myself that while some things are wrong, there are many, many ways to be right (or effective or imaginative or evocative or. . .or. . .).

Pax said...

Thanks, Nan: so true. Your students are fortunate to have you. And thanks, too, Anne, for drawing the parallel between looking like oneself and writing with one's own voice. As The Bard said, "To thine ownself be true . . ."

Nan said...

PS: In other words, I totally agree with you!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Nan, I like the way you put that: many ways to be right.