Rules for Writing – Rule #8 – Thou Shalt Know When to Trust Thy Self

In the film When Harry Met Sally (still the only Romantic Comedy that matters), the character of Sally explains how she is decidedly not high-maintenance by referring to herself as simply ‘wanting things the way she wants them.’

That’s easy enough to understand, isn’t it?

As writers we are, alas, always learning. We never ‘get there’ and every project set before us presents us with challenges unique and particular to the project. Added to that is the complication that we need feedback from others before we release our ‘completed’ projects into the readership wilds. These notes can be high-level and conceptual, or these notes can be minute, specific, nit-picky, painfully on-point.

Recent New Yorker pieces by John McPhee (Writer Extraordinaire) and Mary Norris (Comma Queen) instruct the writer on how to conduct oneself when constructing works amidst the critical flood-plane 

Style, which flows from big concept down to comma placement, from blueprint to individual nail as it were, must be alternatively unique and standard. We must uphold, and we must innovate. This is no less true of the writers as it is of those who edit our work.

In Norris’ words: ‘One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.’

What’s fascinating is the implicit lesson that there is a certain amount of subjectivity when discussing style and grammar. There are rules. And then are…rules. Some are meant to be adhered to and some are meant to be challenged, fought against, broken.

For that latter category, the writer has to stand firm, to be high maintenance, and declare – I want it this way because I want it this way.

It’s not always the most advisable or defendable stance, mind you. I learned from my mentor Richard Cortez Day that consensus is important. If one person tells you a description is lazy or doesn’t make sense, you take note, but if five people tell you the same, you revise. Most of the time—probably 98 or 99 percent of the time—you should take the feedback your beta-readers and trusted opinion-givers provide and make the changes they offer.

But there are times to push back. There are instances when you the writer—because you are uniquely you and you think of things the way you think of them—wants it the way you want it.

High-maintenance? Of course. We're writers.

Influences - TC Boyle

There are those authors whose works initially set us on our path to become writers ourselves. These are often the authors we read when we are kids or teens, the authors whose works first haunt us and spur us to take on this writing life.

Then there is the second category of author influences, the established writers we encounter after we’ve already begun our writing careers. They are the unexpected influence, the ones we didn’t see coming, whose literary work crashes headlong into your intended artistic path and forever alters our course, making us aware that life is not a path through the forest but a voyage upon an uncharted sea.

TC Boyle is that author for me.

I was in my mid-twenties, already committed to becoming—to being!—a writer, and I was reading through the Best American Short Stories of 1997, a habit I had picked up during my writer workshops. The BASS collections are often staid and stuffy, more a reflection of the American literati perpetuating its tastes than of truly publishing the best short fiction of that year.

Two guest editors in the 1990s gleefully twisted the typical BASS modus operandi: Louise Erdritch and E. Annie Proulx (now just Annie Proulx). These collections are stellar and inspiring—qualities that BASS often fails to summon—and as a fan of Proulx’s, I found her take on that year’s best fiction startling.

TC Boyle (then writing as T. Coraghessan Boyle) originally published his story ‘Killing Babies’ in the New Yorker, and its topic is what you would guess from the title. What was foreign/shocking/enlivening was the outcome – the antagonistic Pro-Life protestor getting his in such a blatant and violent way. The shock I felt—I think I said aloud, ‘You can’t do that’—galled me and pissed me off, and yet, I was instantly won over. The story was both overtly political and shamelessly vengeful, but above all, it was a page-turner. Boyle can turn a literary phrase while engaging and entertaining the reader, sneaking in the art while distracted you with the story. 

Thanks to a coworker, who was already enamored of Boyle’s work, I started reading everything he'd written. His novel World’s End is still probably my favorite (always dance with the one that brung ya, right?) But I love his short story collections, and the novels Riven Rock and A Friend of the Earth are incredible examples of enticing narrative stamina.

His unabashedly Baby Boomer-focused fiction taught me how to structure a novel, how to delve into the minds of my characters, how to spice tragedy with humor. How to embrace my own flawed, contradictory humanity, even. My fiction would have continued to imitate that staid and stuffy BASS tone and timbre if not for Boyle’s intervention.

I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the unfortunate influences that the Iowa Workshop and Raymond Carver have had on the pedagogy surrounding the teaching of fiction. I’ve been unfair. As Carol Sklenicka’s fantastic biography of Carver reveals, Carver was an instructor at the Iowa Workshop when both Boyle and another, very different writer Mark Helprin, were in attendance. Perhaps the Iowa Workshop has always been more diverse than I’ve given it credit for.

Boyle’s career and output have done to the MFA v. NYC debate what Alexander the Great's sword did to the Gordian Knot.