Guidelines for Creating

One of my favorite bloggers posted the rules he gives to his writing students. These excellent guidelines for writers (and readers) are applicable as well to those of us who work in the visual arts.

I have extracted from his posting below, but you can read the entire piece on his blog, Joe Felso: Ruminations.

I encourage my students to formulate internal lists of what they value in writing, what they think works and doesn’t, what helps and doesn’t. I tell them that being so deliberate about your writing “rules” assists you in another way— it contributes to your evolution by moving you up to new and better rules.

Here are what I would consider my personal big three:

1. Robert Frost said, “No discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader.” My own version of that idea comes from one of my teachers in graduate school, Susan Cheever. Susan told me that English instructors teach writing exactly wrong. They tell students to pick topics they like, subjects they know. They ought to be urging them, she said, to write about what troubles, confuses, frightens, or otherwise eludes them. To write well, you must gamble. You should never, never, never know entirely what you want to say.

By the way, while I try to live by this rule myself, it’s had mixed results as advice. The chief danger is that you throw filaments hoping something will catch and end up “noodling” or—I’m being discreet here—playing “verbal solitaire.”

2. Good writing breathes or, put more concretely, it expands and contracts in its attention to the subject. Working close to the trees, in tiny, precise, and ample detail, begets an impulse to fly high and see the whole forest. Every broad statement demands a return to actual stuff broad statements rest upon. A writer who works particularly well in this way is Joan Didion. Her essays are neither minutiae interrupted by wisdom nor wisdom interrupted by minutiae. They are the un (see rule #1) holy marriage of both. They tack back and forth, making the most of the lightest breath as they beat against the current.

Note: William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” seems a violation of this rule but really isn’t. Williams acknowledged ideas and things were indivisible; one without the other is mute.

3. Break a rule everyday. Some student writers glom onto form like the last life jacket. They’d like adherence to be the greatest measure of merit. As they gain experience as readers however, they come to appreciate artful violations. I like the asymmetrical paragraph, clichés that jump ship rope, and sentences that refuse.

Rhyme is okay with me, but I love the way Dickinson drops it, the way Gerard Manly Hopkins hides it, the way Eliot juggles it inside lines, the way Richard Wilbur transmutes it.

It helps to know what readers expect, but better to know what they don’t. Behind all three rules lies movement, misdirection, and surprise.

2 Replies to “Guidelines for Creating”

  1. Deborah – thanks for reiterating this message from JF, Ruminations. It is invaluable guidance, good to keep in mind for all creatives. He seems to be a teacher who I would have absolutely adored as a student, never mind how old, as he is a great example of self-examining, humble wisdom. Lucky, those students who come under his influence!

  2. I particularly love the line about how good writing “breathes or, put more concretely, it expands and contracts in its attention to the subject.” They are lucky students.

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