6.28.2005

Dear Angela. From Dennis Cooper.

Rules of writing

I saw a writer friend of mine this weekend. This writer teaches in a graduate fiction writing program. The writer told me that in this program, the students are given a set of basic rules for writing fiction that they're expected to follow. For example, one rule is that every story must contain a triangle (i.e., one character wants another character to love him or her, but that character loves a third character. Or, a detective wants to solve a crime but there's something in his past that makes his investigation go wrong.) Another rule is that dialogue can never be used to advance the narrative. Do I need to say that these kinds of rules are not only bullshit but very destructive to a young writer? These kinds of rules are the standard in contemporary writing programs. No wonder that 80+ percent of the fiction books that get published in the US are 'well written' mediocrities. I think it's infuriating and tragic. Anyway, it made me pull out a list of guidelines I gave students in a writing workshop I taught a long time ago. In hindsight, I think they're sometimes too abstract and sometimes kind of obvious, but I think that, as rules go, they're a lot better than the aforementioned. Here are some of them:

-- Study the content, form, style, and structure of your very favorite music, visual art, movies, pornography, video games, fiction, etc. (Do not prioritize fiction over the other mediums.) Why are your favorites so special? What do they have in common? If you can figure that out, that's what you want to write.

-- Fiction is a drug. The reader is a druggie. The writer is the chemist designing a drug that will give the reader an ideal high. Don't design a drug that already exists. If you do, no one will remember the high you gave them.

-- Characters are not real people. They are designs with human names. The design itself can be revised into any other design as long as it retains its name and keeps you fascinated while you're writing.

-- Life doesn't have a plot. It never deliver what you expect or want or are promised. Life's interesting even when nothing dramatic or important is happening. Pay close attention to the shape of your life. Realize that everyone's life has a unique shape. If you want to write about your life or someone else's life, do its unique shape justice.

-- If someone you respect tells you that you've very talented, believe him or her. People who recognize talent are always right. The vast majority of people who don't recognize talent are always wrong.

-- Every sentence is important. Every sentence is a gymnast. Every sentence is a detail in a work of architecture. Every sentence is hiding something.

-- If it helps, I never took a single fiction writing class or workshop. When I first started writing seriously, most of my writer friends were much more talented than I was, and they received much more praise than I did. Not a one of them became a published writer. For the first ten years that I was writing, 95 percent of the work I submitted to magazines was rejected without so much as an encouraging word. Twenty-seven publishers rejected my first novel 'Closer' before Grove Press accepted it.

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