Three Rules For Writers

I have met some amazing people on this creative journey and Jeremiah Abrams has a great deal of knowledge to share that I know some of you will resonate with. Last year I was the teacher on a retreat in Bali and this year, Jeremiah is teaching at the same resort in Ubud, Bali on the theme of Write for Your Life–Developing a Strong Narrative Voice. The retreat is just after the Ubud Writer’s Festival so check it out if you’re keen to learn, write and grow in paradise. 

There are three rules for writing well.
Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
––W. Somerset Maugham

Somerset Maugham, who was reputed to be the most highly paid author in the English language during the 1930’s, had neither need nor time for rules about writing.  He was on a productive rip and much too busy applying himself to his meteoric writing career.  Yet what a lovely conundrum Maugham has given writers to contemplate:  there are rules for writing/ there are no rules for writing.

It is a minefield out there (in there). The solo task of writing can wind one through labyrinths of distraction.  Writers must dodge temptations to reduce their task to obeisance to a set of simplified rules and also avoid the perfectionist’s obsession with a right way to write. The real mission of writing resides in finding one’s authentic narrative voice and allowing it to speak through the page.  This is the ultimate concern for us as writers, to find and do what enables us to author our authentic voice.

But writers certainly can benefit from knowing the experience of other writers. The blood and guts of the writer’s calling can be absorbed from biographies and interviews with writers whose works we admire intensely.  And it is satisfying and useful to swap stories about writing. Sharing in writers’ circles and groups is an increasingly popular and useful pastime for the contemporary writer. We may learn just what we need by listening to what emerges in a gaggle of writers.

And what about antidotes for writer’s block, the dreaded demon enemy?  Not everyone suffers from blockage, but we all could use a preventive dose of suggestions on hand, just in case the cliché becomes a reality. You can find a raft of rules for writer’s block in the information stream; just google the phrase “antidotes for writer’s block.”  I particularly like Tom Robbins advice:

“If you’re willing to take chances, risk ridicule, and push the envelope, and if you’ve managed to hold on to your imagination (the single most important quality a writer can possess, even slightly more important than an itchy curiosity and a sense of humor), then you can dissolve any so-called block by imagining extraordinary, therefore unthinkable solutions, and/or by playing around uninhibitedly with language.”  (Wild Ducks Flying Backward)

When it comes to writer’s block, I see myself as a motivational coach.  I bring enthusiasm to the writing enterprise, knowing that self-expression is always much more than just craft or intention. We each need to find our own best therapy for writer’s block, not to coddle ourselves but to keep the writing habit going.  I especially value what the prolific Irving Stone had to say:  “When I have trouble writing, I step outside into the garden and pull weeds. . . best therapy there is for writer’s block.”

As for the three rules for writers promised in my title, I say to hell with Maugham, here is what makes sense to me today:

1. Be A Reader

The trait all writers have in common is a passion for the written word. Learn from other writers, find the writers who turn you on, emulate them, compete with them, honor their trail-blazing, and, short of plagiarism, borrow from them. T.S. Eliot once said that the best way to judge poetry “ . . .is the way in which a poet borrows.” What Eliot observed about poetry easily applies to all forms of writing: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”

2. Listen To Your Inner Voice And Take Dictation

In my own research listening to and reading many interviews with writers, I found this surprising result. The majority of authors explicitly stated that their writing process consisted of listening first.  The creative act is in writing down what you hear.  Whether it is a character speaking dialogue or a discursive inner monologue, crafting your writing means being the scribe to an internal narrative process.

3. Read Your Written Work Out Loud

Hearing your own words spoken aloud is essential for editing and rewriting.  Listen for the music and cadence as the words flow and fall  like a dancing brook of ideas and feelings. Instantly, you will hear what does not belong and also notice where the narrative thread needs work.

Jeremiah Abrams is a Jungian psychotherapist and author, based in the San Francisco Bay area of California.  An avid reader and researcher he has also had a career of writing, editing and publishing. Jeremiah helped to launch the New Consciousness Readers series for Penguin/Tarcher with his books Reclaiming the Inner Child and the best-selling Meeting the Shadow.   His newest work is part audio, part music and part writing,  The Dreamtime Journey: The Path of Direct Experience.

Jeremiah is leading a writing retreat October 9-15 2011 in Ubud, Bali: Write for Your Life–Developing a Strong Narrative Voice

Also in Bali, October 17-23,  Jeremiah Abrams and Jutka Freiman are teaching “It’s About Love: Removing the Barriers,” a retreat for healing the wounds of love.  www.itsaboutlove.posterous.com

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Comments

  1. says

    Your comment under ‘Be A Reader’ reminds me of a response Philip Larkin gave to an interviewer:

    INTERVIEWER
    You mention Auden, Thomas, Yeats, and Hardy as early influences in your introduction to the second edition of The North Ship. What in particular did you learn from your study of these four?

    LARKIN
    Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn. At the end of it you can’t say, That’s Yeats, that’s Auden, because they’ve gone, they’re like scaffolding that’s been taken down. Thomas was a dead end. What effects? Yeats and Auden, the management of lines, the formal distancing of emotion. Hardy, well . . . not to be afraid of the obvious. All those wonderful dicta about poetry: “the poet should touch our hearts by showing his own,” “the poet takes note of nothing that he cannot feel,” “the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own”—Hardy knew what it was all about.

  2. says

    “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” That’s always the advice that I value most. We might be physically stuck in one place and that can make it difficult to turn your imagination loose but in reading something from a different time or place a whole new experience becomes available to each of us.

    Nice post :-)

  3. says

    I agree with with you and with Maugham. I agree that reading your stuff aloud is essential for editing. It allows you to hear the flow of words where your eyes would otherwise deceive you by jumping over errors and skipping through bad grammar. Reading aloud also helps you to hear alliteration and rhythm where the eyes can’t see it. I think you should also read a lot although I would say at least read some quality stuff as part of that.
    But I also agree with Maugham. There are many things one can do to improve one’s writing but the more you learn of the rules and guidelines the more you lose your distinctive voice and so in a way he was right.

    • says

      Christopher- As I said, Maugham gives us a conundrum: when in the flow there are no rules, no need for rules. When we need inspiration, reminders, support or guidance, we can open and receive the input of others to help reconnect to our authentic voice.

  4. says

    Joanna, reading your blog should be one of the rules for writers. You are where I look, first, last and in the middle of feeling unmotivated or uncertain, or any time that doubt creeps in and writing is suffering. You make me feel like part of the writing community because you allowed me to see myself that way long before I published my first novel. Great job here.

    Dixie Goode

    • says

      Dixie – that is truly lovely of you and you are my community! I only found my own writer’s voice because of this online group of brilliant people. I am so grateful to be alongside you (and everyone else reading) on the journey.

  5. says

    This is great advice. Thank you!
    It’s so easy to get caught up by distractions when it comes to something like writing, which takes focus and a lot of determined intent.
    I particularly agree that being a reader can give you fuel/inspiration as a writer. And T.S. Eliot is one of my favorite poets. :)

  6. says

    Christopher- As I said, Maugham gives us a conundrum: when in the flow there are no rules, no need for rules. When we need inspiration, reminders, support or guidance, we can open and receive the input of others to help reconnect to our authentic voice.

  7. says

    If you want to be a writer, you must be a reader. Usually, it is not about what we know and what our mind speaks but it also helps to listen to other voices and through reading, we can achieve these. I agree with you that writers must be a reader too, a listener and well a speaker. Personally, it enhances my writing ability if I try to listen to what I wrote since I can able to evaluate my write up based on my reader’s perspective.

  8. LK Watts says

    I agree with this statement so much – ‘The real mission of writing resides in finding one’s authentic narrative voice and allowing it to speak through the page. This is the ultimate concern for us as writers, to find and do what enables us to author our authentic voice.’ This is what I strive for when I am writing. Of course, you must be a voracious reader too, that goes without saying.

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