Break­ing the Rules

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By lenore myka

When to ig­nore good ad­vice.

IWAVED the white flag, sur­ren­der­ing. The novel I had devel­oped a re­la­tion­ship with—had spent time and re­sources and emo­tional en­ergy on—had built a fortress around it­self, lock­ing me out. It did not want me. But more to the point, I did not want it. We were through.

As in any dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship, it had taken me a long time to get to this point. Six years, to be ex­act. Four dif­fer­ent drafts, a to­tal of more than a thou­sand pages, which did not in­clude the dozens of in­dex cards, the jour­nals and note­books filled with ideas and re­search and mind-maps; the hun­dreds of dol­lars spent on out-of-print books and DVDs and even a poster fea­tur­ing a re­print from an ob­scure artist that I bought to in­spire me; the week­ends and early-morn­ing hours and an en­tire month off from paid work, all taken in ser­vice of the novel that had now be­come “my ex.”

How had I ended up here?

This par­tic­u­lar ques­tion is easy for me to an­swer. I’m a good girl, a good stu­dent. I can hon­estly say that in the forty-six years of my life I’ve never missed a dead­line, never asked for an ex­ten­sion. I like and fol­low rules. I’ve been called hard­work­ing, stu­dious, dis­ci­plined, de­ter­mined. I’d also add im­pres­sion­able to that list.

And therein lies the rub: I tend to value the opin­ions of oth­ers more than my own. Case in point, I re­cently so­licited the ad­vice of four friends be­fore de­cid­ing to pur­chase an In­stant Pot pres­sure cooker. I also took lots of (bad) ad­vice about rene­go­ti­at­ing my salary and po­si­tion at my paid gig. When it comes to writ­ing, I have a ten­dency to in­ter­nal­ize all the won­der­ful ad­vice I’m given, adopt­ing it as the truth. But the prob­lem with this is that writ­ing is not cal­cu­lus; you don’t come up with al­go­rithms and churn out per­fect prose. It re­quires blood.

It also re­quires in­tu­ition—a lot of it. But after six years, I no longer knew what that was.

Dur­ing the time I’d spent with my novel, I told friends and fam­ily who asked that through the process of writ­ing this book I was try­ing to un­learn ev­ery­thing my MFA pro­gram had ever taught me. By this I meant those “rules” you some­times hear about plot struc­ture, point of view, and

char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. But I was also talk­ing about the more prac­ti­cal ad­vice I’d been given. Good ad­vice. Ad­vice I of­ten gave my own stu­dents, ad­vice that came from in­di­vid­u­als whom I loved and ad­mired. Ad­vice that, to a cer­tain ex­tent, I still be­lieve in. But “rules” and ad­vice are not uni­ver­sal. For them to be ef­fec­tive, they need to match in­di­vid­ual cir­cum­stances. And all that ad­vice didn’t fit what I was go­ing through at the time.

If I’d lis­tened to all the ad­vice I’ve been given over the years, I’d likely be mar­ried to a man who was sent to prison for money laun­der­ing, sneak­ing in vis­its to him while rais­ing our ten chil­dren and fend­ing off mal­prac­tice law­suits on my sin­gle-mom salary as the world’s worst doc­tor. The point be­ing that just be­cause other peo­ple give you ad­vice doesn’t mean you should take it. And you most es­pe­cially should not take it when your in­tu­ition is telling you oth­er­wise.

And yet, for six years, I told my in­tu­ition to hush up, fol­low­ing the crooked road of the Writer’s Rules in­stead.

Here’s the short­list, in in­creas­ing or­der of dam­age:

No. 1. What­ever you do, make sure you’re work­ing on some­thing new.

My ex was not my first book but rather my sec­ond. I had writ­ten a story col­lec­tion and with great for­tune im­me­di­ately found an agent who wanted to sell it. When I wrote to my old MFA ad­viser, a man who’d been a tremen­dous in­flu­ence on me and a great ad­vo­cate of my work, to tell him the good news, he of­fered this ad­vice: What­ever you do, make sure you keep writ­ing. Have a new project to work on, and if you don’t, turn one of the short sto­ries into a novel. The wait­ing is tor­ture.

The very next day I started work­ing on a new project—what even­tu­ally be­came my ex. In do­ing so, I ig­nored how I was feel­ing, which was tired and drained. When I thought about what I wanted to be do­ing, I came up with ev­ery­thing but writ­ing. I was in­ter­ested in get­ting out into the world again: read­ing, ex­er­cis­ing, spend­ing time with friends and fam­ily, vis­it­ing mu­se­ums, trav­el­ing, play­ing gui­tar, learn­ing French. And any­way I de­served to put my feet up for a lit­tle while, or bet­ter, to soak them in a six-month-long bath. I needed to give my mind a rest and nour­ish my body and soul for a while.

But at the same time the du­ti­ful stu­dent in me wanted the A-plus equiv­a­lent of the writer’s life. I wanted to prove that I was a real writer, what­ever that is. I thought you couldn’t call your­self a writer if you weren’t ac­tu­ally writ­ing. But I know now that’s sim­ply not true.

No. 2. Write what you know.

My ex seemed an ob­vi­ous and nat­u­ral choice. The book took place in an up­state New York steel town that was dy­ing a slow death as a re­sult of out­sourc­ing and glob­al­iza­tion, a town that looked a lot like the one my par­ents both grew up in, one I’d spent a lot of time work­ing in and vis­it­ing, one I’d heard hun­dreds of sto­ries about. Ob­jec­tively speak­ing, the set­ting was com­pelling, the char­ac­ters in­ter­est­ing; there was a lot of po­ten­tial con­flict. As I wrote pages I saw para­graphs that were re­spectable, di­a­logue that worked, de­scrip­tion I ad­mired. I didn’t hate what I was writ­ing. But when­ever I sat down in front of the com­puter screen, I felt as if I were ob­serv­ing the story from atop the Em­pire State Build­ing. I didn’t even feel bored. I sim­ply felt de­tached.

For me writ­ing has al­ways been about learn­ing, and fun­da­men­tal to learn­ing is cu­rios­ity. Cu­rios­ity re­quires know­ing less, not more. It re­quires an im­pas­sioned, some­times ob­ses­sive in­ter­est, an ea­ger­ness for in­ves­ti­ga­tion with no guar­an­tee of clear-cut an­swers. But I had no ques­tions for my ex, noth­ing I wanted an­swered, un­earthed. I knew ev­ery­thing I wanted and needed to know about that town, those peo­ple. I wrote du­ti­fully and like an ex­pert, coldly and me­chan­i­cally re­gur­gi­tat­ing in­for­ma­tion I had stored up in­side but had no in­vest­ment in.

No. 3. Writ­ing is a prac­tice. Prac­tice ev­ery day, prefer­ably first thing in the morn­ing.

This was a no-brainer for me. I am a per­son who thrives on rou­tine. I’m also a morn­ing per­son.

And so I set my alarm and rose be­fore the sun and ham­mered out the pages. Af­ter­ward, I show­ered and went off to work, worked out at the gym, came home, made din­ner, spent time with my spouse and dog, got to bed early, and started the whole process all over again. I was ded­i­cated. I was de­ter­mined. I was mis­er­able.

I blamed it on my job—the old work­writ­ing-bal­ance rou­tine. I told my­self I needed to work less, write more. But the ex­pe­ri­ence of writ­ing my first book con­tra­dicted this: I’d never been busier than when I was writ­ing that first book. I’d taught five cour­ses at three schools, was en­rolled in an MFA pro­gram, got mar­ried, moved, and raised a puppy (and if you don’t think that’s work, you don’t know dogs). I was sleep-de­prived and poorly nour­ished, but my over­whelm­ing feel­ing about writ­ing was one of ex­hil­a­ra­tion.

Not so with the ex. I be­came de­pressed. I slept a lot. I be­gan to ig­nore the early alarm clock, to skip days. I iso­lated my­self from friends and fam­ily; I didn’t re­turn phone calls and turned down in­vi­ta­tions. I felt tremen­dous guilt.

Things only got worse.

No. 4. Writ­ing is hard. Write through the pain.

At what stage in the artis­tic life does the thing you most love be­come the thing you most de­spise? I had al­ways loved writ­ing in the un­con­di­tional way you hear par­ents love their chil­dren. I had been writ­ing since I was a kid and had found ec­stasy in it. Words and sto­ries were an elixir and, more im­por­tant, a deep so­lace.

This isn’t to say that it was easy— love never is—but that didn’t mean it needed to be hard.

And try­ing to write my ex was hard. It was worse than hard. It was ex­cru­ci­at­ing. There were days I felt phys­i­cally un­able to write a word; my body ached with the tor­ment of it. But I’m a bit of a masochist; I come from a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ge­netic pool. I rammed and kicked and wedged and threw the full force of my weight into that novel. And each time I came out of my stu­dio more bruised and more bat­tered.

Why did I do this? Be­cause some­one some­where said this was how it was done. To quit would in­di­cate a great weak­ness of char­ac­ter. To in­dulge the whiny child who cried “I don’t want to!” meant I did not want it enough. And if I did not want writ­ing—this thing I had de­voted a sig­nif­i­cant chunk of my life to, had staked a good part of my iden­tity on—where did that leave me?

Trust your in­tu­ition, said a friend. I laughed rue­fully. I had no idea what that was any­more.

OF COURSE, all roads lead to fear, and that’s what this process was all about. I was ter­ri­fied. If I quit the novel, I didn’t know what I’d do. I didn’t have an­other project wait­ing in the wings, not even a short story or an es­say. What if I quit the novel and the faucet got turned off com­pletely? What if I never wrote a sin­gle word ever again?

But here’s the thing: Hu­mans are not what we do. Hu­mans are ev­ery­thing we do, and feel, and think, with a dash of star­dust thrown in. The same is true for writ­ers.

One evening my hus­band and I were walk­ing the dog when he made an ob­ser­va­tion about my writ­ing.

“You’ve al­ways writ­ten about places you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand,” he said. He was think­ing, of course, about my story col­lec­tion, which was in­spired by the years I’d spent liv­ing in Ro­ma­nia, but also about the other sto­ries I’d writ­ten and pub­lished and an es­say I’d re­cently drafted and shared with him about our newly adopted state of Florida. I had wor­ried that es­say was a dis­trac­tion from the novel. It was a hell of a lot of fun to write.

“With the novel you’re not re­ally writ­ing about a place you’ve

ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand in that way.”

But I had ex­pe­ri­enced that steel town first­hand. So what was dif­fer­ent this time? His words stuck with me, or at least three of them did: in that way. The way in which I’d ex­pe­ri­enced my ex was dif­fer­ent from my other sub­jects. There was no love, no blood—and, most im­por­tant, no cu­rios­ity.

My ex­pe­ri­ence of those words re­minded me of a time

I’d bro­ken my arm as a child.

The bro­ken bone had shifted, its jagged edges nearly spear­ing through the skin. For sev­eral hours I waited to have the bone re­set, the pain so great my mother shook me from time to time, mak­ing sure I didn’t pass out. When the doc­tor fi­nally came, he grabbed ei­ther side of my fore­arm and with a firm jerk­ing mo­tion snapped the bone into place. Just like that the pain dis­ap­peared.

On that walk with my hus­band, I felt some­thing click in­side me, ac­com­pa­nied by a whoosh of great re­lief. In this way my in­tu­ition came back.

The next morn­ing I broke up with my novel. And the thing that I had most feared, some­thing akin to a de­bil­i­tat­ing de­pres­sion (as op­posed to the low-grade va­ri­ety I’d been nurs­ing), did not hap­pen. In­stead I felt sud­denly, elat­edly, light. And hope­ful—for the first time in six years.

I got up from my chair and walked out of my stu­dio and did a lit­tle dance with the dog.

Then I set about do­ing ev­ery­thing writ­ers are not sup­posed to do. I stopped read­ing and watched a lot of TV in­stead. Dur­ing the hours I should have been writ­ing, I went to the beach or for walks or gro­cery shop­ping. I mulled over cook­books, plan­ning ex­trav­a­gant meals; I called friends. I slept in. I took on more hours at my job and found that for the first time in my writ­ing ca­reer I did not feel re­sent­ful of it, but rather grate­ful for it.

I did not write a sin­gle word. Oddly I wasn’t wor­ried about this. I told my­self I’d give it a month and see how I felt at the end. If I needed to I’d take an­other month, and an­other. Maybe a whole year. I’d mea­sure all this by how my gut felt.

Be­fore the end of the month, I was writ­ing again. My sis­ter and her chil­dren had sent me a spi­ral-bound notebook—a drug­store Mead, col­lege ruled, with an il­lus­tra­tion of a smil­ing taco on it that said “Let’s taco ’bout it.” It re­minded me of the note­books I used as a child, back when I wrote for sheer de­light and plea­sure about a young girl who looked and sounded a lot like me, and the horses she saved from wicked, cruel cow­boys. I opened it up and be­gan to write long­hand with a foun­tain pen I’d pur­chased. I wrote about things I didn’t have much knowl­edge of—Florida, for one. My hus­band and I had re­cently moved there from Mas­sachusetts, and I found the new en­vi­ron­ment I was in fas­ci­nat­ing. I took notes on the way peo­ple drove (ter­ri­bly, and with­out the use of turn sig­nals), the wildlife (dol­phins and man­a­tees, bald ea­gles and roseate spoon­bills, poin­ciana and jacaranda), and the weather (hu­mid­ity, hur­ri­canes, heat). I did lit­tle re­search; I didn’t want it to in­flu­ence or pos­si­bly mis­lead me. Though it wasn’t ef­fort­less, I wrote with rel­a­tive ease. Flow re­turned. De­pres­sion lifted. I was in love again.

At this time I also be­gan to lose my hear­ing in one ear and pro­ceeded to dis­obey more writ­ing ad­vice. (No. 5. Don’t use writ­ing as ther­apy.) But writ­ing about my doc­tors’ vis­its and the hear­ing tests, the changes in my body and the med­i­cal in­dus­try that at turns dis­ap­pointed and pro­vided breaths of re­lief, made me feel bet­ter.

There were other rules I re­jected. I wrote when­ever I wanted and when the spirit moved me. I did not set a sched­ule, did not wake up early. I waited for in­spi­ra­tion rather than in­sist­ing the butt be in the chair. There were days that went by when I didn’t write, but un­like in the past I didn’t panic about lost hours or feel guilty for the lack of pro­duc­tion. I trusted that things would come to me in time. I gave my­self space. I went for walks in the woods know­ing the odds were good that by the time I was near the trail’s end, I’d feel in­spi­ra­tion’s hand on my shoul­der.

Dur­ing those dark days of the novel, I had gone blind to the world—or per­haps I’d stopped hear­ing it. Now, post­breakup, I was see­ing it in Tech­ni­color. Its voice was a sym­phony.

WHEN a friend fi­nally, inevitably, asked me about the novel, I didn’t flinch. “I dumped it,” I said. The blood drained from my friend’s face; her eyes welled up. “Oh, no!” she cried.

She, too, was work­ing on a novel. She, too, was strug­gling. I had ut­tered the words of her own per­sonal night­mare.

“No, no,” I added, plac­ing a com­fort­ing hand on her arm, “It’s good. I feel great. Writ­ing’s go­ing well.” It was the truth. It still is.

“You’re still writ­ing?”

I nod­ded.

“About what?”

“Too soon to tell.”

My friend pressed a fin­ger­tip to her lip. “Maybe I should quit my novel.” I smiled, shrugged. “Dunno.”

The last thing I was go­ing to do was to give her any ad­vice.

The next morn­ing I broke up with my novel. And the thing that I had most feared, some­thing akin to a de­bil­i­tat­ing de­pres­sion (as op­posed to the low-grade va­ri­ety I’d been nurs­ing ), did not hap­pen. In­stead I felt sud­denly, elat­edly, light. And hope­ful— for the first time in six years.

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