The 31st of January 2019 may mean nothing to you. Fair enough. But it means a hell of a lot to me. Everything, really. It was the day I finished – truly, conclusively ‘finished’ – my first novel. A considerable self-imposed pressure was lifted from me that day. A pressure which I had felt squeezing my bone marrow into thin stringy pulp for quite a long time.
Before I get into why that was, first some background information.
The story of its creation begins as a disjointed one. As was perhaps unavoidable. Because I was asked to start writing a novel, rather than independently choosing to. So it’s not like I just sat down one day and resolved that this was the life goal I was going to tackle next. (Though it was, as with most writers, a vague ambition of mine. Whose start-date was set for some unspecified tomorrow.) And therefore it kind of just… came about. An external impetus set things in motion. But then I let that momentum sweep me along until, before long, I had my head down and I was running so much faster than the fading tidal wave behind me…
Okay, don’t wanna get ahead of myself. Let’s back up all the way. At university, I majored in English Literature and minored in Creative Writing. To be frank, I did not enjoy the in-person CW classes themselves. I want to be careful with my language here, so as not to overstate the matter. They weren’t a… horrible experience. They were generally just kind of a chore, and not very useful.
I disliked how some teachers would try to impose rigid rules (sourced from either received wisdom or their personal preference) about how one should write onto their students. Whenever they introduced one of these rules, my imagination reflexively conjured up a bunch of instances where defying it could work out well. And, alright, maybe I just have an overly rebellious cast of mind. It is true I’ve never loved being told what to do. But given that this ready abundance of counter-examples was obvious to even an inexperienced writer like myself, I think it was only fair to be dubious. I’m sure I was far from the only student there who was.
Now, I don’t for a second doubt these teachers were well-meaning. It’s just that their approach was, I believe, a very poor way of helping young people discover or cultivate what kind of writer they want to be. There is an adage which states that one must be deeply familiar with ‘the rules’ before one is entitled to and competent enough to break them. On the face of it, this seems to make sense. And such knowledge, when not inculcated as dogma, is indeed usually a benefit. To be consulted as one option among many; not a sacred yardstick. Yet it has long been my suspicion that it’s very dangerous to ever immure yourself inside that staid, conventionalist mindset. Before you know it, those perfect walls will suddenly seem so… homely. Aye, far too neat and straight and comforting to permit any impulse to start chipping away at them. This complacency isn’t just a novice’s bane either. No no no. It has seduced much, much better writers than you or me. And only towards the end of lengthy literary careers have they clawed through the brittled drywall and screamed their mistake through that gaping, jagged hole. I propose we heed their cautionary tales. These were, it should be said, offered for our benefit. If nothing else, it would be rude to spurn such a gracious gift.Continue reading