Testing Writing Rules: A Fab Flash

27 Jan

It’s Fiction Friday and I’m celebrating with a story that reminds me of one of my least favorite writing rules.

I’m all for breaking the rules of writingcraft. I love to engage in a furious bout of TELLING rather than showing, thank you very much, and I wonder sometimes if I’m capable of writing any other kind of story than the “zero-to-zero” Jerome Stern outlawed in Making Shapely Fiction. But the rule I most like to break? The one that makes me snarl? “Write what you know.”

I get it. The rule actually means “Use what you know.” And that’s good advice. But when you’re first starting out, and everywhere you turn someone’s advising you solemnly to write what you know, and then shoving Carver and Hemingway at you, not to mention Updike, not to mention Philip fucking Roth (notice a pattern?) you find yourself thinking, well, I don’t spend my evenings staring at a shot glass or swapping angry silence with a spouse or toting a gun or rushing off to dark corners to either masturbate or get it on with somebody else’s spouse, so I write about… what… Scrabble? Cats?? Wait, I know! My parents’ divorce or that time my brother almost lost a finger because there was suffering, people suffered.

Rule BookI’m just saying: If you limit your fiction to the things you know—things, then, you already understand—why on earth are you writing in the first place? Build a brick oven or make a suit of armour. Do something creepy with papier mâché. Writing is about discovery. The whole point is to write what you don’t know—what you can’t know, in fact, until you write it.

So that’s me, being right, and sharing my rightness with you. Except when I’m wrong! And today I’m wrong. A little. Because the fab flash I’m celebrating is built, I’m certain, on intimate knowledge. Of insomnia. And how do I know that? Because I used to suffer from insomnia. I know how it feels, what it looks and smells like, the particular ways in which it rubs away at your smarts and senses. And I recognize it in a beautiful flash fiction published at Hermeneutic Chaos Journal.

I’d bet money Tessa Yang wrote “Peripheral” from the experience of having suffered from insomnia, or she knows well an insomniac who told her all about it. And so, I would say, she used what she knows, which is why I’m only a little wrong. OR I’m even more right than ever (win-win!) because maybe she just did a little research and then imagined herself, like a champ, into it. Either way (1) Please break writing rules whenever you can, and (2) Read this terrific, quiet, shifty little story ostensibly about one thing but really about something else and then something else again….

Which is really all to say that the one true-blue writing rule you can forever depend on? Reading well leads to writing well. Enjoy.


4 Responses to “Testing Writing Rules: A Fab Flash”

  1. Patricia Weidler January 27, 2017 at 8:34 PM #

    Very nice! Both your blog which has such spirit and the story!!

    Sent from my iPad


    • Claire Guyton January 27, 2017 at 8:52 PM #

      Thanks Patty! Just love that story, so well done. Happy sigh.

  2. Sarah January 28, 2017 at 10:54 AM #

    As a lifelong insomniac (temporarily cured by the sleep-deprivation of new-ish parenthood), this story rings authentic. Particularly that beautiful, knowing line: “It is the insomniac’s greatest privilege and her greatest defeat, to be witness to the sunrise.” Oh yes–or ugh, yes–I know that feeling! And Yang’s prose sings.

    When mentors tell fledgings to “write what they know,” I think it’s sometimes a subtle nudge to “write in your own damn voice.” Although, I recently talked with a writing coach who hates the term “voice” and won’t use it in critiques. I get it. Voice is innate and unteachable. But, for me, it feels so primary because I write and read by ear. I think when a writer hits on her real voice, that’s when she can write about almost anything, and readers keep reading.

    But, back to material and “write what you know,” I love the way you tweak that rule to “use what you know.” Yes!

    Thank you for pointing me to Jerome Stern’s Don’t Do this and his zero-to-zero story rule, which I had to go look up. Great craft advice over there!

    And I love your advice to go break rules. Going to use that as today’s inspiration!

    • Claire Guyton January 28, 2017 at 3:43 PM #

      YES, that sunrise line, definitely, I relate so much it hurts, as your ugh suggests. Also that sense of surreality, that half-seeing, half-understanding. The whole story FEELS like insomnia.

      I think I know what you mean about voice and how you “write and read by ear”–if I’m understanding you correctly, I do as well. The way I describe it, there is no distance between what I think and the page, so writing is actually more natural to me than talking (I have to review what I’m about to say to be sure it’s okay, whereas the page just reaches up to receive my thoughts). I had the opposite response, though–rather than feeling like voice is primary, I felt like I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be pursuing. I’m still uncertain I fully get it when The Smart Ones use the term. So I can also see why this writing coach avoids it. Anyway, this is a great insight you have about your own writing, and it will serve you well.

      Making Shapely Fiction is a great read and helpful for making you question your habits. But I was so surprised to discover I was writing an outlawed story over and over. Fortunately, I decided to just shrug and go with it. After all, his final rule says that if you know what you’re doing, you should be able to profitably break rules, so I’m just channeling my betters by recommending same. So trust that you know what you’re doing and Happy rule-breaking-writing!

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