Singing the story
Sometimes you have to stop

The ugly duckling and the life-raft

In the comment trail of Demandingly ‘wrong’-headed, David Isaak describes a writers’ group reacting to his explaining why ‘don’t use adverbs’ is not a good - or even practicable - rule. Their reaction, he says, was along the lines of ‘It makes us really angry when someone tries to dilute a perfectly good and understandable rule by getting technical.’ That's the thing, isn’t it: people feel very insecure when something they thought they’d grasped, turns out not to be nearly so easy to hold on to. In the short term they feel themselves falling back into the almost overwhelming sea of possibilities that they first encountered when they started to think about writing.

But I do wonder if people are particularly upset, therefore defensive, therefore attacking, because of the way most of us learn how to write. First we write instinctively, with the joy of expressing ourselves. We write more, we want to be heard (or why are we writing?), we sense that something’s getting in the way of our expressing ourselves more fully, we tell ourselves we want to improve. So we ask teachers or how-to books or other writers what they think. And someone gently or roughly starts to point out how we could do it better, where it doesn't work, where it’s ‘wrong’. Generally speaking, that hurts, a little or a lot. We were proud of our writing, it had our heart stapled to the pages, and someone with experience or even authority has told us it’s lacking. Slowly we see what they mean, and try to put it into practice, with false starts and more hurts, and awkward ugly-duckling phases where our aims outstrip our technique. But if, instead of this unpredictable feedback spiral of learning, grubby brown feathers and all, we're taught neat ideas of what will help - rules of thumb, clever little tips, tick-box revising techniques - ‘success’ comes more quickly. We're doing things right, we're good at it, everyone approves.

So to be told that what healed you, what made you a ‘better’ writer, what perhaps even won you prizes and certainly approval, is fundamentally flawed, is pretty hard to take. If you’ve got as far as making something of a writing life - teaching, reviewing, or any milieu where your opinion carries some weight - it's even more threatening. To have it explained in unarguable detail why the way you've judged your own and others' work for so long is inadequate is almost impossible to handle.

So no wonder people lash out, particularly if they hit the water just as a swan is passing. They've been cast adrift from the life-raft of 'the rules', but because they've always had it, they never even learnt to swim.