Rules for Writing

All I can say is that I was looking for a certain density of thought. A living voice. A text that would surprise me and take me through a mental adventure. Phillip Lopate

There was an article in the Times last month (7/26/12) on how to write. I thought, I can always use a few hints. The article was written by Colson Whitehead, a writer who I had been led to believe is highly regarded.

Since he is an expert on these matters, I read the article with considerable care, only to discover he was dispensing the same advice I must have read at least a dozen times before. You know, the usual: write what you know; revise, revise revise; “what isn’t said is as important as what is said;” and so on. And then I came to the last “rule,” as Mr.Whitehead calls them, number 11, in fact, where I was informed, “There are no rules.”

A great burst of laughter could be heard for miles around. Oh, but, Colin, what about those ten other rules you so kindly “shared” with the rest of us?

Anyway, I thought the last so-called rule was a blessing. Because I write poorly, spell like a six year old, and no doubt violate every rule established by grammarians and the authorities at the New Yorker.

I do that intentionally or maybe, naturally or more likely because I don’t know how to write, as I try not to write, but to be heard, by someone as if we were sitting together in a room, having a conversation, only I am doing that or trying to do that on the page. Like now.

On two occasions I did take a writing workshop to overcome my glaring deficiencies. Both were really excuses to spend some time in Europe, although both were taught by an esteemed writer who I was certain would come to my assistance.

One year the workshop was taught, if you can call it that, by Philip Lopate, the well-known essayist and editor of the invaluable Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. And Lopate did pass along a number of good suggestions, not rules.

• Build suspense; establish a tension

• Pose a problem

• Be fully honest

• Create a character, turn yourself into one, observe yourself from a distance, use your quirks and contradictions

• Reflect on your life, don’t simply spell it out. Even if you don’t understand it, it is important for an author to try to come to some understanding of the autobiographical facts that are presented ad nauseum in most memoirs.

• An analytic perspective is equally important.

• To think on the page is to engage the reader.

Lopate’s suggestions were refreshing, different, tips that go well beyond Whitehead’s oft-repeated rules. Practicing them is another matter. I still have a long way to go. Obviously.