Rules and Anti-Rules, Generalizations All Around

In this month’s “The Writer’s Chronicle,” an article by Steve Kowit appeared, entitled, “A Poet’s Anti-Rule Book.” Now anyone who’s ever been remotely interested in writing immediately has an idea of what it's about before they even get to the first paragraph.

Throughout the internet and the course of writing textbooks, helpful blogs, and experienced teachers there has been an ever changing “list” of rules, that, when expressed seemed absolute to amateurs. In fact, the common saying is, “Learn the rules then learn to break them!” These lists include examples that would encourage better writing: things like, “Don’t ever use adverbs,” or “Don’t ever use said,” or, in some cases, “Always use said.”

There is a constant backlash against these rules, because, let’s be frank, they’re condescending.

If you’ve ever entered into a creative writing class, or even an English course, for that matter, you’ve had to come up against these things. The problem is is the teacher takes a very Shakespearean approach to making these mandates, telling you what they’re going to tell you to change, then telling you to change it, then telling you that they told you to change. From the beginning of the class one gets the idea of what they’re pet-peeves are—“Take out every single “you” in your essay”—and they ignore everything else. They give you rules that professionals never follow, and they do not take the story in context. When a teacher announces that one should never use a passive sentence, and then that’s all he criticizes, the student has a hard time believing that his actually story was being respected. Either the work is perfect, in which case the passive-sentences shouldn’t matter and the teacher had nothing else to say, or it still needed work, but the teacher couldn’t muster the effort to go deeper than what he was already looking for. Either way, it’s a little insulting.
So, immediately when I looked at this article, I had a good idea of what it was going to contain. The mistake I made was the assumption that he was going to be deeper about it than the thousand of back lashing I had seen before.

Kowit’s entire argument comprised of “Look at all these famous people who’ve done this thing you tell me not to do!” He berated against the “Show Don’t Tell,” theory, the “Anti-Cliché” doctrine, the “Use of Active Verbs” demand, and a whole grouping of things that I entirely agreed with, yet found his article thoroughly unconvincing, even when read by the choir.

The problem was, first and for most, I did not find that he actually knew what issues these blanket rules were intended for. He confused the idea of “Telling” with straightforward saying what happened. He explains that, “Any quick look at good writing will demonstrate that effective writers spend a great deal of their time telling the reader what is happening…”

These are the two mistakes he issued throughout the entire read. One being that the problem of “Showing not telling,” is not dealing with the problem of being “unpoetic” and just dictating what events are occurring, but a story having its believability ruined by the author not trying to prove what they are informing the audience should believe. In the book, The Soprano Sorceress, a current novel I am finding difficult to get through, L.E. Modesitt Jr. constantly tells the reader how she should feel about another character. In a scene in which two women are conversing, he presses his desire for how the reader is supposed interpret his work:

“‘From what you have said,’ Alasia continued, ‘and from what the sorcerer has said, it would seem that you are more powerful here. Is that true?’

‘That’s true.’ Anna said. This woman was very perceptive.’”

The line of one woman’s opinion on the other is an example of bald face telling. It functions as two writers' conveniences: he disguises the delivery of information (Anna’s strength in one world versus the next) as a demonstration for how brilliant Alasia is, and he proceeds to then inform us that she was brilliant for knowing that. Explanations like this feel very insulting. He is either not trusting the way he wrote it to be convincing enough for the reader to believe that she would know that, or he just believes that a reader wouldn’t have caught it on their own. Or he was merely being redundant. In any case, the line, “This woman was very perceptive,” seems out of place and unnecessary.

Again, I am not criticizing Kowit’s abrasion to the constant, pelting advice. I will not go into detail about my feelings on the subject because that is another blog in itself, however, I will say that though they are not consistently true, they can be useful.

That in mind, his complete dismissal of them seems a little more like a vendetta than a well thought out argument.

Other than that Kowit’s absence of arguing exactly what it is that is wrong with the Absolute Rules, he is further unconvincing when all his evidence to prove that it is foolish was written by famous poets in which have always been established to be above the rules.

Remember the mentality that one should learn the rules to know when break them? No one has ever argued that works already considered great would often go against the rules so pounded upon the “inexperienced.” No one argues that greats use these blanket generalizations to create their master pieces. In fact, no one really believes that obeying this decrees by the letter will a great work make. So, spending five pages arguing that one can’t say not to use adverbs because here are six famous people who use them, actually will not convince anyone of anything.

It is a more elaborate, and may I say, more cleverly done, version of an argument that has always come up since the rules are first introduced to a new victim. He, however, does not go into any more detail or put any deeper opinion into it than what the students in a beginning creative writing class has said. He just has specific examples.

All in all, the article angered me just as much as it would have been if it was “A Poet’s Rule Book.” I believed he completely took out of consideration on literature’s need for variation just as much as a teacher arguing the opposite does. I also feel that the article did not come to a better understanding as to how to teach writing, and it is just as useful to lead a teacher into better teaching styles as an absolute rule list would to a student to better writing styles.

Like an acting teacher once said to me, “You cannot act a ‘not’ doing something,” thus you cannot write by not writing something and you cannot teach by not teaching something.

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