There Are No Rules in Writing

“A story to be effective had to convey something from the writer to the reader, and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and any technique at all — so long as it was effective.”

John Steinbeck

 

For me, one of the most therapeutic things about writing is that there isn’t a sense of competition. I don’t worry about being better than anybody or topping any masterpiece. It’s simply my attempt at putting my own ideas, daydreams and shower thoughts into words, however best I can. 

It’s a form of play, really — just like how it was when you were little, mixing different color pencils and crayons together to see what new hue or effect it created. 

It’s just the act of exploring, with curiosity as your compass.

Being human, though, fear does inevitably creep in sometimes. At times I do find myself obsessing, “Does it make sense to write it in this way? Is it good enough?”. And every time, the antidote is to simply remind myself that there are no rules in writing. It may or may not work well for a particular piece that I’m writing, but I’d never know how it goes if I don’t at least give it a try. 

Lately I was reminded of a lesson that the renowned musician Joni Mitchell learned in the struggling early years of her career. She had bid farewell to her hometown in Canada, and had traveled to California with a guitar in hand and a dream at heart. 

During that time, she experienced what she called “a revelation”. It was an event that forever changed her perspective about songwriting. To be more particular, it was a song — one titled Positively 4th Street by Bob Dylan. It might have been the first “fuck you” song that the world had ever heard of. It was an angry song that Dylan directed to his fake friends who had now resented him for his success.

“You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend.
When I was down
You just stood there grinning..”

Mitchell reflected, “When I heard Bob Dylan sing, ‘You got a lotta nerve.’ I thought ‘Oh my God, the American pop song has grown up. It’s wide open. Now you can write about anything that literature can write about.’ Up until that time rock & roll songs were pretty much limited to, ‘I’m a fool for ya, baby.'”

She realized that in writing, the sky was the limit. There were no boundaries as to how far she could explore her own emotions and thoughts, except for what she had imagined. 

Not that this realization instantaneously turned her career around, no. She had to endure many more disconcerting years of playing in empty venues and giving her best-written songs away to more popular performers before she finally got the spotlight she deserved. 

But in the long run, it did mold her into an artist in the truest sense, in that she never stopped exploring. She wrote and played music, first and foremost, because it was what she loved to do.

So, if you find yourself stressing out about a “lack of ideas”, or if you’re afraid to try something new, don’t be. There are no rules in writing, and you can write about anything and in any way you damn well want, as long as it makes some sense. 

Before you go, here’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s memoir A Man Without a Country that’s worth pinning on your wall, “The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

 

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