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.

Swimming in the Science of Sound

Not unlike the criminals from a Batman comic, writers are—among their many faults and virtues—a cowardly and superstitious lot. And if we writers are worth anything at all, we obsess about the oddest and coolest of minutiae.

Ever since I read Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker  piece A Voice from the Past: How a Physicist Resurrected the Earliest Recordings I’ve been obsessing about his statement that ‘…people sometimes thought that all sounds that ever existed were still present.’ And then there was Guglielmo Marconi, the man who sent the first radio waves, who believed that if he had a sensitive enough microphone, he could hear Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount.

I flat-out love this idea, LOVE THIS IDEA, however unscientifically, uh, unsound it may well be. And yeah, I’ve been obsessing about it. The notion that every sound ever made is floating around us, reverberating throughout the Universe, echoing about the cosmos, and just waiting for us to pick it up with technology precise enough to capture it, is thrilling to ponder.

Then I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Kabbalah scholar Lawrence Kushner who (to badly condense and summarize and paraphrase) discussed the mystic belief that the act of the Universe’s creation was not a single event that occurred back there in time, but is an event that is still happening, will always be happening. There is no past, present and future, no above and below, just a present Now that is Creation in a constant state of noisy unfolding.

And the origin of this Creation? The first sound.

That subtle click that the larynx makes just before uttering a syllable. The mysterious, unknowable potential of Creation is an open note unburdened by definition or meaning reverberating now as it always has and always will.

Granted, my writer self doesn’t quite know what to make of all this. I’m not sure how or if I can incorporate these navel-gazing ideas into a story or novel. I may just have to settle for geeking out.

The seeker self, though, feels the connections mounting, the disparate ideas coalescing. It’s about now, and it’s about what’s around us right here, and it’s about being present within it all.

Swimming in sound that someday we may finally hear.