In one of my writing classes on Monday, our instructor asked us to write down a list of all the writing rules we knew. Pens began scratching. Mine moved non-stop—after all, I’m the editor of a writer’s newsletter that regularly publishes articles on the “do’s and don’ts” of writing. There are thirty-some-odd students in the class, but when we each read one rule from our list, there wasn’t much overlap.
Then our instructor told us to tear that page from our notebooks and toss it in the recycling bin. For that class, for the rest of term, he was throwing out the rules. There was only one rule now:
Those rules, he said, shut down our creativity. He demonstrated by sitting on a stool, shoulders back, head up, arms making broad gestures, ready to write—until he remembered rule after rule that slowly weighed down upon his shoulders and bent him forward, until he was hunched over an imaginary computer keyboard, trying to type within those rules.
In this class, he speaks about the power of oral storytelling—regaining the enthusiasm we once knew for the power of the story, when as kids we ran up to our mom and said, “Mom, Mom, you wouldn’t believe what happened to me today…” and then the words just gush from us because we are so excited about this newfound ability to tell. Oral storytelling allows us to shut down that inner critic, to just let the words flow from us. Freefall writing, basically, but orally.
As I walked away from the class, his words stayed with me. I remembered writing my first novel when I was fourteen—before I knew all the “rules” of writing. Words poured from me onto the page, until I’d written one novel, then another and another. I had the basics of grammar, but I didn’t worry about “show don’t tell” and “avoid cliches” and “never use -ly words.” I simply told the stories of the characters who were talking inside my head.
Then I started university. Went to writer’s conferences. Read writer’s magazines and writer’s books. Began to understand how much I didn’t know as a writer. Began to see the difference between really good books and ones that just didn’t cut it. I developed an editor’s eye—that comma is wrong. This modifier is dangling. That sentence is corny. This character is flat. And then the ideas stopped. I almost feared beginning classes last semester, because I feel like I haven’t had a new idea in years.
So as I sit in this class, listening to this instructor tell us about how he shuts down his inner critic and sits down and writes—start to finish on a novel without editing or rewriting or second-guessing himself—I find new hope for myself. It’s not about the rules. It’s about the story. I want to write story for the story’s sake.
Writer Mom – I’ll add it to my summer “to do” list. And maybe after learning more about screenwriting this semester, I’ll want to try it. 🙂
You’ve GOT to read Story by Robert McKee. It’s a screenwriting book, but transcends to all story-telling in any form. It has completely changed my writing from the inside out and inspired me like crazy to get back to the basics of what a story is. He breaks it down so well. My writing is going to be so much better for reading it. Put it on a list somewhere for when you are done your semester. 🙂