One-Day Workshop on Writing Historical Fiction 10th Oct
Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo? A few tips.

Does worrying about technique and "the rules" restrict a writer's creativity?

I've blogged before about why what are called "rules" about writing are really tools, and why all the things you're told you "shouldn't" do in writing are sometimes exactly what you should do. I've exploded (comparatively speaking) with fury about why the "cut everything with was in it" idea is actively damaging as well as wrong-headed, and I've talked about how much it helps to approach different drafts in a different spirit.

But the question at the top of this post is a perfectly fair question - and one which a blog-reader asked me the other day:

It is these little trip-ups that are making writing less fun than it used to be. I'm on my eighth novel, and it is becoming cumbersome trying to remember all these danger zones! That's why, perhaps, I enjoy reading my first drafts the most, because they contain how I felt at the time I was writing--rather than going through the homogenized "techniques" we insist upon. I know most of them are good, and we need to be aware of them, but don't you think they can become obstacles to our creativity as well? 

As that post about drafts explores, I certainly think that worrying about "getting things right" in any sense - technique, historical or other facts, upsetting your mother-in-law or failing to annoy your children - can strangle the creatures of your imagination before they're even born. But "technique" derives ultimately from the Greek "tekne", which translates as "craft" and "art": it's only later that it comes to be contrasted with "art". In other words, technique is only a word for the tools of language and storytelling that work best on the readers of your own time and context.

Most of us have some technical things which come naturally (I've lost count of the students who've said to me, "Oh, is it called Free Indirect Style? I've always done that, but I'd no idea it had a name!"). But we all discover other technical things which we recognise are effective but have to learn, and then apply consciously and perhaps rather awkwardly, at least in the early days. That's why for many of us it works best to worry about that learned writerly behaviour later: let the shitty first draft pour out with one's innate, natural virtues and faults, and then tackle the learnt-later things as a separate stage. 

So technique restricts creativity only when you haven't yet mastered it, just as a pair of skis restricts your adventures in the mountains when you don't know how to ski. When you do know, skis will help you to more adventures than you could ever have on your own, unassisted feet. 

And "homogenized"? Well, yes, there's a risk that you "edit out the freshness" if you apply the technique just because you're told you "ought" to: the tail of correctness is wagging the story-dog. By contrast, doing something about that "wrong" comma - or point-of-view shift - won't result in bland and samey work if you stay in touch with your first-draft bubble. Then, your original, instinctive sense of what you're wanting to say, and how and why you're wanting to say it, will stay in charge of what form that "correction" takes: the dog is still in charge of the tail. When you really know how point-of-view works, when you can sense the way commas control meaning and expression and so use it, then the reader won't sense homogeneity, they'll be feeling the dragon's - or Darcy's - breath, hot on the back of their neck, and reading on to find out will happen next.