Rules can be helpful. But there are really too many of them. So much indeed that, once we have mastered the basic ones, to improve our style we’re better off concentrating on a more concrete creative writing process.
Phantom limbs can be extremely painful. Even if, given that they are not there, they shouldn’t pose any problem to their… owners.
I know this sounds paradoxical. But bear with me, please.
In the 90s the treatment of such type of pain was extremely difficult, and led to no or negligible improvements. But then V. S. Ramachandran came up with a brilliant solution. A solution only requiring a five dollar mirror.
In fact, in his opinion the brain was sort of locked and unable to disengage the phantom limb from an uncomfortable and painful position because, after all, the limb was missing.
But using a mirror, Ramachandran managed to give the brain the illusion of actually moving the blocked phantom limb (when in reality it was just the reflection of the healthy one.)
As a result of this cognitive dissonance, between what its nerves and its eyes told it, the brain was forced to “reset”. Consequently, in a relatively short number of sessions many patients reported the resolution of their problems.
All this is interesting, but how do phantom limbs relate to creative writing?
In a quite simple and direct way, I believe. I mean, to write good prose we need to internalize a large set of rules. Then, when we have mastered them we can learn how to bend such rules to serve our narrative requirements.
This is a life-long process. A process that can be quite quick at the beginning, but that then tends to level off on a sort of barely inclined plateau.
However, sometimes our progress is hampered because the rules we are trying to internalize or adapt to our narrative requirements are just like phantom limbs.
In fact, they are rules dictating what we should avoid. They are rules about what we should never write. Things like, don’t use too many adjectives. Don’t use adverbs. Never end a sentence with a preposition. Never use a split infinitive. And on and on.
As a result of this negative-rule policy we end up with our head brimming with, so to speak, phantom writing. We have some idea about what we shouldn’t write. But we don’t know what to write.
At first blush this seem pretty normal. Really, not a big deal. Especially for aspiring writers.
One mind, two systems
But the problem is that our minds are designed to be economic, not accurate.
In fact, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, our minds are made up of two systems. One is working all the time, it is unconscious and uses a lot of shortcuts–heuristics–to solve problems.
This system is fast and most of the time it gets things right enough for us to survive. But as soon as we need to accurately assess a complex situation we need the help of the other system, the slow one.
The slow system is a wonderful machine. But it can only work on one task at a time, it is slow, and it tires easily. So, first of all we’d better use it when we really need it. Secondly, even in such a case, we should work hard to make its job as easier as possible.
For example, when we want to learn a complex new skill, like writing well, we should ditch all those rules telling us what not to do. The reason for this is simple. They are terribly inefficient.
I mean, just think of a river. If I ask you to describe it, to tell me what it is, you would more easily carry out your task using words and phrases that relate to what a river is, not to what a river is not.
A) A long and narrow furrow in the ground that is filled with water that flows from a spring toward the sea.
B) It’s not an animal. Not even a rock. It isn’t a sea. Nor a glacier. No trees make it up. And it doesn’t smell of gas. It doesn’t sing. And doesn’t jump either.
I think you get the idea.
The reason is apparent. Even if to describe a relatively small object we might theoretically use up an infinite number of words–and some people affected by literary elephantiasis actually do so–in practice when we use positive words and structures we have a lot easier task than when we use their negative counterparts.
We should therefore focus on basic positive principles. Things like these:
- Decide what you want to say.
- Decide how you want to say it.
- Write it using as few words as possible according to point 1 and 2.
- Assess your own writing.
- Ask some other people to assess it.
- Evaluate the feedback and decide whether to rewrite your piece or not.
For example. Let’s say I want to say Eric is angry. Let’s say I want to show it in a few words and with no irony or sarcasm at all.
He tore open the envelope and snatched the letter inside. His nostrils flared with contempt on every other word, and as soon as he finished reading he crumpled the letter and threw it away.
“Stupid bitch,” he said in a growl. Then he went inside.
Instead, if I want to say Eric is angry. And I want to tell this while hinting that maybe Eric is a bit childish and he’s overreacting, I might come up with something along these lines:
Eric was angry. He hadn’t been so angry since he was three. Since that day in kindergarten when Robert–who was now a damn successful lawyer–had robbed him of his snack.
He read the letter with mounting fury. Then he swore profusely and went inside.
These two are far from being literary masterpieces, but I hope they exemplify my point.
Responsibilities and Possibilities
As writers we not only have the duty to tell a compelling story to our readers. We also have to make sure it is written in such a way our writing helps the story to shine even more.
And to do so we have to focus on what we want to do. As just as a climber on a wall of rock, we have to look at the possibilities, at the footholds, not at the jump, at all that space we have below and above of us.
And, to paraphrase the comedian Emo Philips, when we at last get to the top and might be tempted to tell ourselves what a wonderful organ is our brain, we should always remember who is telling us that.