Why are there 2 rules of writing?
First of all, what are the two rules of writing?
You must make mistakes.
You must finish SOMETHING.
Ok. So why are there only two? And why those two? It’s because those two rules are just enough to put the power in the hands of the writer. That’s you.
So many people (my past self included) say things like: I can’t write a novel. Or: I can’t write a poem. Or even more troubling: I can’t write.
Let’s start with a more basic question than can you or can’t you. Do you want to? If you want to, then you can.
I’ll go into the idea of creating work-arounds for yourself more fully in a later article, but I can’t resist one example right now. One of the recurring excuses for not being able to write a novel or story is: I can’t come up with a plot. Ok. So do what Jane Austen did in Pride and Prejudice and steal the plot from a Shakespeare play. Don’t feel too bad. Shakespeare stole most of his plots from his favorite authors, too.
The point is that a lot of writers will feel cheap or bashful about stealing their plot from a famous work. They’ll feel like it’s against the rules. But there are only two rules. So you might look among those rules for this imagined third rule that says “No stealing plots, characters, etc., from your favorite authors.” But you’re not going to find that rule. What are you going to find? One rule that says you are welcome to try things, even if you end up not liking the result. And one rule that says that what’s important is seeing a project through. The project may not end up where you wanted it. But you’ll learn something that will help you write your next piece, whether it be fiction or nonfiction; prose, verse, or drama. And yes. You’re welcome to try your hand at fan-fic… or devote yourself to it entirely.
So what are you left with? You’re left with the idea that if you sit (or stand or lie down) with your laptop or notepad or what-have-you and start writing, you’re on the right track. In a way, that’s a really liberating idea, right? There’s no period of preparation, because writing is preparation for writing. The only way to get better at writing is to write (ok yes also to read and edit, but if you don’t practice writing, those two are not going to get you very far).
How are those two rules liberating? What do these two rules liberate you from?
Wait. That’s ridiculous. You’re a teacher. And half the point of this website is that you charge people for your services. So why would you be shooting yourself in the foot by saying I don’t need a teacher?
Because I try to be honest with you. I think that’s important. Will a teacher help you? Of course. I can give you encouragement, I can give you guidance, I can put an experienced pair of eyes on your writing. But if you don’t have a teacher you can still progress. How? By taking your place at your keyboard or notepad or speech-to-text device and cranking out pages, then revisiting them and trying to make them better.
2. Writer’s block.
This one makes a bit more sense. You’re going to encounter writer’s block. It happens to almost everyone. The question is what to do when it happens. Well, writer’s block usually comes from feelings of inadequacy as a writer. There are times when it’s hard to muster that positive energy:
I can do this.
It doesn’t matter if I get it wrong the first time out. I’ll fix it in revisions.
I don’t care if it’s good. I’m happy just to be writing.
Trust the process.
These rules matter the most when you’re having the most trouble. And guess what it’s really hard to do when you’re feeling anxious and depressed and inadequate and stopped-up? You already know the answer. It’s really hard to remember long lists of rules. But you can remember just eight words:
You must make mistakes.
You must finish SOMETHING.
And by following those rules, you can give yourself permission to write something. Because writing in this way is worthwhile.
That last word is key. Finish SOMETHING. Maybe the story or poem or essay you’re working on right now is not the piece you’re going to finish. It happens. It’s physically impossible to finish every piece you start. But the idea is to keep going. To keep following the rules in good faith. If you’re stringing together too many unfinished projects in a row, ask yourself why. Talk to someone about it. Talk to me about it, if you like. Bring me a heap of unfinished projects and say: I need to pick one and finish. Can we put our heads together and decide which is the most promising?
The last bit is: what happens if you have a teacher and then you don’t? My goal is to make it so you don’t need me anymore. Maybe your schedule doesn’t permit taking writing classes anymore. Not even once a month. Not even once every two months. What if your finances don’t permit you to pay for a teacher? What to do? Well, if it’s financial, please come talk to me. But essentially, the answer to this problem is the answer to every problem. Just keep going. Keep writing mistake-riddled first drafts. Keep revising them into slightly-better second drafts and then into still-better third drafts. Keep talking with other people about your work. Keep showing your work to other people and getting feedback. Keep giving yourself permission to write. What if your worst anxieties come true and they give you spiteful or unhelpful feedback? First of all, they won’t. But if that did happen, it would be about them, not you. You trust your process.
Just keep going.