Breaking the Rules
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?”
“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.