Yes, Part 2 of Crimes for Writers to Commit (read part 1) is not going to be about how to deal with constructive criticism, because I have thought long and hard and decided that dealing with constructive criticism does not involve any “criminal” activity. I will, however, blog about it some time in the future.
Today we move on to crime #2, which involves general, broad-reaching criminality: break the rules.
When I say that, I do not mean for writers to go out and create flat characters, implausible plots, and cliché-filled descriptions with glaring grammatical mistakes and expect to produce a timeless work of art. What I mean is that maybe we should change the way we usually think about writing.
Writing, unlike most disciplines, and like most arts, is the antithesis of formula. When you go to the hospital for treatment, you definitely don’t want the doctor to break the rule of washing his or her hands before touching you. You also wouldn’t want a doctor to be so rebellious as to decide that despite all the signs and tests indicating that it is your appendix that requires removal, taking out your tonsils instead would be “wicked cool”. Likewise with lawyers: you don’t want your lawyer to show up in court in gangsta-style clothing to convince the judge that you should have custody of the children after a particularly nasty divorce. No. There are some professions that simply do not lend themselves too much to rebelliousness these days (the past is a different story).
But with writing, a lot of the time, it is breaking the rule that shows us new brilliance. A sentence with inverted word order can show you the English language in a whole new light. Genre-fusion (where two or more different genres are fused to form a completely new and never-read-before genre) is another example of how writers who break the rule end up “making it”, so that the new “way” becomes “a rule”.
I don’t agree with what I see as a primarily elitist view that writing is the domain of a select few brilliant people who are born to enlighten the dull masses with their genius. No. I believe that everyone can write. Even those who are illiterate.
But in my opinion, it goes beyond that.
I think that in a world that is increasingly becoming defined in 140 characters or less, we have forgotten that history and literature were purely oral during times considered as the heights of civilization. This oral history, often recited in poetic form, is as literary — if not more — than today’s bestsellers, and the proof is… in the poetry. To this day, the pre-Islamic epic poems recounting the history of various Arab tribes, still exist, although for centuries, they had remained purely oral, with no written records. The same is true of Greek and Mesopotamian epics, for example.
Even today, I am amazed at the number of Arab poets who can rattle off entire, well-constructed and linguistically flawless and beautiful poems on the spot. A few years ago in Lebanon, I met a wizened old — and technically “illiterate” — woman from a small southern town who answered a question about the political situation in the country with a long improvised poem. She hardly even stopped to think of the next line. It just came out of her naturally, as if she was singing a lullaby, making tea, or merely breathing.
Would anyone dare claim that this woman is not a poet? Would the act of physically writing those same words down on paper give them more power? I think not.
So here’s me breaking a huge rule of writing: “writing” is not about putting words down on paper (or a screen).
That is only one part of the whole. The words exist before they are physically recorded. They exist in the mind of the writer, and — according to a personal theory of mine — they exist in a realm quite beyond our physical senses (this may sound wacky, but I assure you, I am NOT on any kind of drug — except chocolate, maybe). Oral traditions still hold a lot of power in many parts of the world, and they also belong in the world “writing”.
I think we should stop talking so much about “writing”, which is the medium, and go back to talking about “storytelling”, which is the art.
What do you think about writing vs. storytelling?
What rules do you think writers should break?