The Basic Rule: There are No Rules

Colson Whitehead‘s contribution to the New York Times Book Review’s “How To” issue on Sunday is titled How to Write. You know, a topic that fits neatly into 11 easy-to-follow rules. Well, sort of.

It’s a funny piece. Famously smart and clever, Whitehead’s novels include The Intuitionist (which I loved) and most recently, Zone One.

And as is often the case, advice for writers (even when tongue in cheek) can also be be good advice for painters and other makers. Here are a few of Whitehead’s rules that may speak to the rest of us:

Rule No. 2
Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration…Once your subject finds you, it’s like falling in love. It will be your constant companion. Shadowing you, peeping in your windows, calling you at all hours to leave messages like, “Only you understand me.” Your ideal subject should be like a stalker with limitless resources, living off the inheritance he received after the suspiciously sudden death of his father. He’s in your apartment pawing your stuff when you’re not around, using your toothbrush and cutting out all the really good synonyms from the thesaurus. Don’t be afraid: you have a best seller on your hands.

Rule No. 8
Is secret.

But of course!

Rule No. 9
Have adventures. The Hemingway mode was in ascendancy for decades before it was eclipsed by trendy fabulist “exercises.” The pendulum is swinging back, though, and it’s going to knock these effete eggheads right out of their Aeron chairs. Keep ahead of the curve. Get out and see the world. It’s not going to kill you to butch it up a tad. Book passage on a tramp steamer. Rustle up some dysentery; it’s worth it for the fever dreams alone.

The last and arguably most important:

Rule No. 11
There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No…Most of all, just be yourself.

3 Replies to “The Basic Rule: There are No Rules”

  1. Funny, and so true! Love it.

  2. I enjoyed that piece, too. And some of the others in that issue!

  3. Thanks Adelaide and Ann. He’s very clever, that Colson.

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