Updated: Jan 22
This will be an ongoing series of blog posts that will grow over time as I uncover more and more creative writing snake oil out there in the wild. And there are countless examples of writing click bait, sound bites, and viral memes mucking up your Twitter feed, Facebook, and other social media feeds believe you me.
Let’s be clear, up front: I’m not against writing or story advice—goodness knows I give away enough of each myself. No, what I’m opposed to is writers giving away their critical thinking ability to gurus, experts (me included), and hucksters who sell the latest-greatest-secret-sauce-creative-writing-magic-bullet solution to all their writing and storytelling woes. Writers helping writers is one thing; couching advice and suggestions as gospel or some kind of dogma is quite another.
As I have said since 2006, “Listen to everyone, try everything, follow no one. You are your own guru.”
“So what?” comes the obvious objection. “Who cares?” Buying into the big myths and clichés of creative writing hasn’t done any real harm. People keep writing, books are still being published, screenplays produced; in fact, more creative writing is happening now than at any time in human history—so what’s the big deal?
The deal is that lots of harm follows these myths and clichés: wasted time, pointless writing, lost money, unnecessary struggle, missed opportunities, just-plain-bad writing, to name just a few. When you buy into the myths you go on creative autopilot and shut down the greatest gifts you have as a creative person: your ability to discern, your ability to assess, and your ability to make informed creative decisions. Reviving and relying on those abilities are at the heart of being a conscious writer: i.e., a writer who knows what he-she is writing, why he-she is writing, and how he-she is writing. Being a conscious writer honors our true creative process and is the only path to achieve deep, authentic, and meaningful connection with readers.
I have written a great deal about what conscious writing is all about, and how to become a conscious writer, but busting the biggest myths of creative writing has to rank as one of the most important first steps onto the road to becoming a conscious writer.
So, let’s take that first step here and start busting the top myths of creative writing. What we’ll look at in each of these short posts is the original idea of the myth, what the real truth is beneath the myth, and then how to bust the myth and take your power back as a writer.
Myth #1: There are no rules.
The Original Idea:
The idea behind this myth is actually well-intentioned. I think people buy into this myth because it is a serious attempt to reject all the other myths. We intuitively reject being told what to do, especially when that advice conflicts with or confounds what we instinctively know to be right for us. There is so much writing and storytelling opinion out there that it can all feel overwhelming, and it all can’t be correct anyway, right? And if some guru is out there pushing some set of rules, they are probably just selling soap and snake oil and have their hand in your back pocket going after your wallet. After all, even the great Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” So, all this tells us no one really knows the truth, no one has the rulebook figured out, and consequently there must be no rules.
I get it. I used to believe in this one too. It felt empowering to reject all the advice as must-do check boxes and reject all of it out of hand to in order to find my way, my path, my process. This idea is, in fact, at the heart of my little quote above about being your own guru. But the reality is that there are rules to storytelling and there are rules to writing. Lots of them, and it must be so. Think about it: what system or process in the natural world doesn’t have rules for how the system works? There are rules to physics, chemistry, mathematics, cooking, chess, and even random chance. So, how is it that creative writing should get a pass?
“Surely art has no rules,” comes the objection. Creative process is not rule-bound, it has to fly free, unencumbered. Right? There may be a fun, sophist-like argument to be had about whether or not art has rules. That's kind of the point of art, right? Okay, let me give up that high ground (for now). Perhaps art is always outside the rules, but craft is not. Craft is squarely inside, not outside. Picasso and Michelangelo followed rules. Painting has lots of rules: how to lay down paint, the rule of thirds, color theory, rules of perspective, “fat over lean,” the list goes on. (The danger here for misinterpretation is gigantic, i.e., readers assuming I'm saying follow the rules, behave, and be a good little boy or girl. Hell no. I'm saying, "Be a conscious writer.")
Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a professional so you can break them like an artist.” Creative writing has rules too: the rules of grammar, syntax, rhetoric, style guides, form rules (poetry vs prose), this list also goes on. And storytelling has rules: presence of conflict, protagonists, antagonists, story structure, emotional content, story goals, you know the drill.
If you follow the rules of the road when you drive, your chances of crashing are reduced. If you CHOOSE to ignore those rules, your chances of crashing increase dramatically. Choices have consequences. If you know what the consequences might be, and you are okay with those consequences, then go for it. Good luck. But if you forge ahead oblivious to consequences then your choice to do so is simply irresponsible. It's no different with creative writing.
Every creative choice has creative consequences. Pick path A for your story and you immediately eliminate all other paths. Creative writing is a reductive process, not an additive one. The trick is reducing your creative choices in the best way for your story using your ability to make “right” creative choice. The rules of writing and storytelling help you make those "right" choices.
If you ignore the rules (meaning you never master them) then you will pay the consequences of bad writing and bad storytelling and you will shout to the world, “I am an amateur.” If you master the rules and then “break them” like an artist you elevate the rules to art and no one knows the rules are even there, but they are, you simply transcended them—you didn’t abandon them (à la Picasso).
But I know what you’re thinking: “There are no rules” doesn’t mean ignoring grammar and spelling, it just means not going into vapor lock listening to so-called experts. Yes, I totally agree. But the danger is that the knee-jerk to reject the very idea of rules can potentially undermine professionalism and competence. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and the bubbles it came in. There is nothing wrong with learning the rules of whatever system it is you are playing with (and writing and storytelling ARE different systems) and then pushing them as far as they will go. Even if you break them, they are still there, under the surface, supporting your creative choices.
How to Bust This Myth:
If rejecting all rules is something that you simply have to do, fine. Go for it. Not bad, not wrong. But I would suggest a bit of a mind shift might help mellow this decision so that you can have your cake and eat it too. Think of it this way: when it comes to creative writing/storytelling there may be no rules, but there are best practices.
Over the centuries as writing forms and storytelling itself have evolved, artists have found that some practices have held the test of time over other practices. New techniques and narrative methods have evolved that now dominate creative and craft processes. Not rules, but best practices. In other words, some stuff tends to work better than other stuff and if you do the stuff that works better your chances of producing a good piece of writing will increase. Can you live with this mind shift? I hope so. I think it is a happy median that can ease your rule-averse angst.
In addition, I would suggest that learning the rules that you do know (mentioned earlier) will only make your skill set and productivity shine. Become the professional Picasso talked about and then pick and choose how you implement the tools of your trade to make the best creative choices with the optimal creative consequences.